Invertebrate animals are in the frontline of our battle against Covid-19. Two insects and a living fossil are proving crucial to the production of effective vaccines, while medicines developed from leech saliva are saving thousands of lives. This underscores our dependence on biodiversity and conservationists are calling for increased resourcing for the protection and restoration of invertebrate populations so that, as we emerge from the pandemic, we start to halt the worldwide declines in insects and other biodiversity.
People are familiar with plants being a rich source of medicines, but scientists are increasingly turning to small animals to discover chemicals and processes that help prevent suffering and death in humans.
The USA developed Novavax vaccine consists of proteins created in cultures of Fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) cells. The cells are infected with an engineered virus that causes them to start producing the protein spikes that coat SARS-CoV-2. When injected in humans the proteins produce an antibody response. The vaccine is achieving high success rates against all main variants of the virus and is entering authorisation processes around the world.
In Japan, Silkworms (Bombyx mori), another moth, have been turned into factories producing the protein spikes. The process takes around four days to make sufficient quantities and the caterpillars are then harvested. The spikes are being used in a home test-kit for antibodies that reveals Covid-19 resistance.
The blue blood of the horseshoe crab has almost miraculous qualities. Chemicals in the crab’s blood react to harmful bacteria that might contaminate the vaccine. The test makes sure that that vaccines are in good condition. A synthetic version of one of the proteins has recently been authorised for use in Europe, China and Japan and is used by the Pfizer vaccine, but most of the world still only uses this marine arthropod’s blood.