Researchers and drug companies around the world are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to possible ingredients in a vaccine against COVID-19. One proven substance in different strains of influenza vaccines is squalene, typically collected by killing sharks and extracting the substance from their livers.
Sharks naturally produced squalene in their livers, which helps them stay afloat, but when added to a vaccine it acts like an adjuvant making it more immunogenic.
The natural occurring substance is also found in plants, yeasts, bacteria, and algae and is just as effective, but rarely used due to cost. Plant-based squalene is 30% more expensive and harder to extract. However, wildlife experts are hoping to encourage researchers to explore non-animal squalene sources to save shark populations.
Shark Allies, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting sharks, states that roughly 3 million sharks are already killed each year for their squalene, used by cosmetic industry and for other vaccines, and the number would increase drastically if used for any of the proposed COVID-19 vaccines. They estimate that 500,000 sharks would be slaughtered for everyone to receive just one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
According to the WHO, there are currently 40 candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation and 151 candidate vaccines in preclinical evaluation. Of these vaccines, about 5 are using shark-based adjuvants, but if even one goes into production it would be devastating to shark populations.
“It is known that deep-sea sharks are targeted because they have some of the highest concentrations of squalene in their livers. But these sharks are also some of the most vulnerable to exploitation because of their extremely low reproductive potential.” Shark Allies posted.
The organization created an online petition to stop using sharks in COVID-19 vaccines that at the time of writing had over 24,000 signatures. “Using sharks in COVID-19 vaccines is short-sighted, unpredictable, and unsustainable. There are better alternatives,” they wrote. “Shark squalene is not a unique or “magical” ingredient. The chemical structure of the compound squalene (C30H50) is identical in sharks and non-animal alternatives, meaning its efficacy in vaccines should be identical regardless of its source.”
While the organization is all for the production of a vaccine, they would like it to be one without shark-based squalene. They said, “We are in no way trying to hinder or slow down the development of a COVID-19 vaccine or any other critical treatment that is needed to protect humanity from illness. We are asking that sustainably sourced squalene is used in all non-critical applications and where the alternative is just as effective as shark squalene, and that all future testing of adjuvanted vaccines is giving non-animal-derived squalene sources equal consideration.”
Sadly, other animals are also being targeted in the race to find a vaccine.
Andrea Powell is an animal enthusiast that resides in West Michigan. When not writing, she is exploring the great outdoors with her dogs and horses.