Up to half a million sharks could be killed to create global coronavirus vaccines, conservationists warn

Conservationists fear that if two doses of the vaccine are needed to immunize the global population than half a million sharks would subsequently die.

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Image Credit: Gerard Soury

Several pharmaceutical companies are using squalene, an oil from shark liver, in the development of potential COVID-19 vaccines. This has conservationists scared that the mass production of a COVID-19 vaccine could decimate the global shark population.

Not that conservationists are asking for researchers to halt or delay the development of a vaccine, instead, they are asking that non-animal based squalene be tested alongside animal based squalene, Stefanie Brendl, founder of California-based Shark Allies, said.

“Sourcing an ingredient from a wild animal is not a long-term solution,” Brendl said.

Squalene, “a natural organic compound sourced primarily from shark liver oil,” is being used as an “adjuvant” or an agent that “increases the strength of certain medicines by boosting the immune response in recipients,” Vice News reported. According to experts, it would take 3,000 sharks to extract a single tonne of squalene.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) there are 176 potential COVID-19 vaccines in clinical and preclinical evaluation in which 17 of them use adjuvants. Of those 17, five of them use adjuvants that are shark-based, according to Shark Allies.

While shark liver oil helps make vaccines stronger, conservationists fear if every single person globally received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, an estimated 249,351 sharks would be killed. Further research concludes that if two doses of the vaccine are needed to immunize the global population than half a million sharks would subsequently die.

“The industries stand to profit immensely from having a global vaccine,” Brendl said. “It is reasonable to ask that they start thinking about a reliable and sustainable production.”

Hammerheads, great whites and whale sharks are a few species of sharks used for their livers in both pharmaceutical and cosmetics use. While many sharks are already at critical levels, conservationists worry the ongoing production of coronavirus vaccines for years to come will “affect ocean health, food security, and livelihoods for generations to come,” EuroNews reported. Many warn that sharks are detrimental to the ocean’s health and functionality. While humans need the ocean, the ocean needs sharks one in the same.

“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.”

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