What a COVID-19 Vaccine May Mean for Shark Populations
Erin Drumm, Staff Writer
As coronavirus transmission continues around the world and the death toll increases every day, scientists are racing to develop a vaccine for the widespread disease. Squalene, an oil naturally produced in the liver of shark species, is currently being considered as a key ingredient in at least 17 possible COVID-19 vaccines. According to the World Health Organization, there are 34 candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation, and 142 in preclinical evaluation. Of those vaccines, 17 utilize squalene as an adjuvant to aid in immune response, and 5 of those vaccines use squalene that is directly derived from sharks.
One California-based conservation group, Shark Allies, predicts that if a vaccine that uses shark-derived squalene is approved, then up to 250,000 sharks would be killed to produce one dose of the vaccine for each person. Some scientists and early-stage clinical trials suggest that two doses of the vaccine may be needed, which would result in the slaughter of about 500,000 sharks. Harvesting from wild animals is never a sustainable practice, but this proves especially devastating for sharks. The endangered gulper shark and the threatened greenland shark have been cited as having high amounts of squalene in comparison to other shark species, and use of wildlife for a coronavirus vaccine would devastate their populations. It takes roughly 3,000 sharks to produce one tonne of squalene, and as many as 3,000,000 sharks are already killed each year to produce medicine, flu vaccines, and cosmetics.
There is, however, some good news. Some companies, such as Amyris based in Silicon Valley, have developed methods for deriving squalene from plant based alternatives including yeast and olive oil. Amyris has successfully produced squalene from sugar cane, and the company claims that it could produce enough squalene for up to one million vaccines in one month, but synthetic squalene has not yet been approved for vaccines.
Shark Allies has created a petition to urge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and vaccine developers to stop using animal-derived squalene for a COVID-19 vaccine, and the petition has already amassed a total of 43,405 signatures. The conservation group has confirmed that they are in no way trying to slow the production of a vaccine, but that they move forward with development using a non-animal derived substitute. Healthy shark populations are crucial for oceanic health, and it is critical that the testing of non-animal derived squalane begins immediately to protect the vulnerable species.