One of the ingredients for making one of the COVID-19 vaccine is shark liver, which can produce a natural oil or squalene.
Scientists and conservation experts warn that it may be necessary to kill half a million sharks for their natural oil to produce the vaccine.
Squalene is currently used as an adjuvant in medicine – a substance that increases the effectiveness of vaccines by creating a stronger immune response. British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline currently uses shark squalene in the flu vaccine.
The company said it would produce one billion doses of this adjuvant for potential use in a coronavirus vaccine by May 2020. Around three thousand sharks are needed to extract one tonne of squalene, reported by Sky News.
Shark Allies, a group based in California, has said that if the world’s population received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine containing shark liver oil, about 250,000 sharks would need to be slaughtered, depending on the amount of squalene used. Meanwhile, if two doses were needed to immunise the global population, according to the researchers, this would increase to half a million.
To avoid the threat to the shark population, scientists are testing alternatives with a synthetic version of squalene made from fermented sugarcane. Shark Allies founder and executive Stefanie Brendl said that harvesting something from wild animals would never be sustainable, especially if it was a predator that doesn’t breed in large numbers.
“Then how many versions do we have to go through so that if we continue to use sharks, the number of sharks taken for this product could be very high, year after year,” Stefanie said.
Meanwhile, conservationists estimate that about three million sharks are killed each year for squalene, which is also used in cosmetics and engine oil. There are concerns that a sudden increase in demand for shark liver oil could threaten populations and see more species endangered as many species rich in squalene, such as the gulper shark, are already vulnerable.