It is vital that we come up with a vaccine against COVID-19, however at what cost? According to a shark conservation group, there might be half a million sharks killed for a vaccine. This could have a devastating effect on our oceans; ecosystems.
Sharks Killed for Vaccine Against COVID-19
In their livers, sharks produce a natural organic compound called squalene. This compound is often used as an adjuvant for vaccines. Adjuvants act as agents that bring about a stronger immune response and so they are added to vaccines to make them more effective. (1)
Currently, of the 176 coronavirus vaccines in preclinical and clinical trials, 17 use adjuvants. Five of those adjuvants are squalene based, and one of them, known as MF59, requires 9.75 mg of squalene per dose. (2)
To extract one tonne of squalene requires 2,500 to 3,000 sharks. Shark conservationist group Shark Allies predicts that if a squalene-containing vaccine were to be used, 250,000 sharks will need to be killed to give everyone in the world one dose. In order to give everyone two doses, which is highly likely, half a million will need to be slaughtered. (1)
Shark Allies founder Stefanie Brendl agrees with the urgent need to develop a COVID vaccine, however, she insists that finding squalene alternatives or non-squalene-based vaccines is critical to the shark population. (2)
“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 to Vice News. “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. [And] the overfishing of sharks globally is already at critical levels.” (2)
A Population Already Under Threat
While sharks aren’t currently being killed en-masse for a coronavirus vaccine, it’s the future possibility that is frightening. Sharks are important predators whose population is already under threat. (2)
According to the Miami Herald, the squalene industry already kills around three million sharks every year. (2) Squalene is also in cosmetics as a moisturizing ingredient. (1)
Other threats to shark populations are overfishing and the shark fin trade. This business is responsible for killing 100 million sharks globally every single year and is a large part of why many shark species are at risk of extinction. (2)
Brendl and everyone else at Shark Allies are not suggesting that scientists and pharmaceutical companies slow down their work to develop a coronavirus vaccine, she simply asks that they use a plant-based squalene alternative. (3) Options for plant-based adjuvants include Olive oil, Sugar cane, bacteria, and yeast (3).
Each of these options has varying levels of success as an adjuvant. However, they can, unfortunately, cost up to 30 percent more than shark-based squalene, and they also take longer to extract. (2)
In an online petition on their website, Shark Allies wrote this:
“Using sharks in COVID-19 vaccines is short-sighted, unpredictable, and unsustainable. There are better alternatives. 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.” (4)
The petition has already collected over 13000 signatures, and you can sign the petition here.