A nonprofit organization estimates about 500,000 deep-sea sharks may need to die to supply the world with a coronavirus vaccine when one proves safe and effective.
A shark’s liver contains oil primarily made up of a compound called squalene, which can also be found in plants and humans. It’s largely known as a moisturizing agent in cosmetics such as skin creams and lip balms, but squalene is also used in some adjuvants — common ingredients in vaccines that help create a stronger immune response.
The compound has been used in U.S. flu vaccines since 2016 and has an “excellent safety record,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Squalene could also lower the amount of vaccine ingredients needed for each person, meaning more could be produced with less.
But Shark Allies, a group that fights to reduce overfishing of sharks, says most shark species will be unable to recover from the large demand needed to produce a global vaccine. What’s more, the industry has little quality control and transparency, meaning some already threatened species might die off for good.
Instead, the group suggests using non-animal alternatives that offer equally effective squalene, such as yeast, bacteria, sugarcane and olive oil.
There’s just one downfall: Squalene from sources other than sharks is more expensive and takes longer to extract.
“Using sharks in COVID-19 vaccines is short-sighted, unpredictable, and unsustainable. There are better alternatives,” Shark Allies wrote in an online petition with more than 13,000 signatures by Monday afternoon. “From a conservation perspective, there is no doubt that the overexploitation of a key component of the marine environment will have dire consequences. On a practical level, using such a finite resource for a product that will have to be made for billions of people, continuously for years to come, is impractical.”
About 3 million sharks are killed each year for their squalene, according to the nonprofit. Depending on the dosage, about 22,000 sharks could be killed to supply the U.S. with COVID-19 vaccines, although it’s unlikely every American will receive one.
In its original home, the compound helps sharks float in water. Predators that spend most of their time in the deep sea have more of this liver oil, and are most often hunted for it. These sharks are also “slow growing and mature late in life,” which makes it harder for them to recover from overfishing, according to Oceana.
Squalene has been used in Scandinavian folk medicine to treat wounds, cancer, heart disease and infertility, Healthline reported, and is now used primarily in the beauty industry or in pill form as vitamins.
MF59 is a common adjuvant that contains shark-derived squalene. It’s currently found in the Fluad influenza vaccine for adults 65 or older, the CDC’s website says.
According to Shark Allies, the adjuvant “has been used as a component of other coronavirus treatments,” such as middle east respiratory syndrome and severe acute respiratory syndrome. This, the group suggests, might mean it’s effective against COVID-19, as well.
“As a result, the demand for shark squalene could skyrocket, leading to a significant increase in the killing and harvesting of sharks for their livers,” Shark Allies said.
On the other hand, plant-based squalene is about 30% more expensive than squalene from sharks because it’s easier to extract it from the dead animal. The process takes about 10 hours compared to about 70 hours to obtain the compound from olive oil, the group says.
The group says several COVID-19 vaccines in preclinical evaluations contain shark-derived squalene, per a World Health Organization report.
Other animals could also be on the frontlines during the pandemic.
Horseshoe crabs have unique blue blood with special compounds that can detect when vaccines or medical tools are contaminated with bacteria such as E. Coli and salmonella, including any that might be used to treat or prevent coronavirus infection. And antibodies produced by llamas have been shown to block the coronavirus from infecting other cells.