Scientists are racing against time to create a COVID-19 vaccine, but the effects of this venture may cause irreversible harm for sharks. Conservationists estimate that preparing a coronavirus vaccine will require at least half a million sharks. Such numbers would push some shark species to extinction.
Squalene, a compound that regulates shark buoyancy in water, is primarily found in shark liver oil. Vital for boosting the human body’s immunity, this compound factors heavily into vaccine preparation. Since 1997, squalene has been used to prepare flu vaccines, and the CDC recommends squalene due to its safety record. The compound also helps reduce the amount of vaccine needed per individual. Additionally, a Science Times publication reports that squalene makes vaccines more effective.
Although squalene also occurs in plants, humans and other animals, sharks contain the highest volume of this important compound. For this reason, hundreds of thousands of sharks risk losing their lives to the vaccine cause. According to shark advocacy group Shark Allies, five of the top COVID-19 vaccines being prepared use shark squalene. The organization has petitioned vaccine developers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, China and Europe to exclude the compound from their vaccines. The organization encourages developers to use shark-based squalene alternatives.
According to a Sky News report, a leading British pharmaceutical company that uses shark squalene plans to harvest a billion doses of the compound for use in potential coronavirus vaccines by May 2021. Stefanie Brendl, executive director of Shark Allies, says that the process of harvesting this compound is killing sharks. “It’s called harvesting, but really you’re not growing it, you’re taking it from the wild,” Brendl said. “It’s a limited resource.”
If the compound is used to prepare a COVID-19 vaccine, the world could pay a serious ecological price. “It’s something we need to get ahead of ASAP, because we are facing many years of vaccine production, for a global population, for many more coronavirus vaccines to come,” Brendl said. “The real danger is in what this can turn into in the future. A reliance on shark oil for a global vaccine — it’s truly insane. A wild animal is not a reliable source and cannot sustain ongoing commercial pressure.”
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