Do Animals Need to Die to Save People From COVID-19?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sharks are being killed in large numbers to make squalene, a component of some adjuvants added to vaccines, including experimental COVID-19 vaccines
  • Squalene, which is made from shark liver oil, may make up the main ingredient in some vaccine adjuvants, and is often used because it’s cheap and easy to source
  • About 3,000 sharks are killed to produce 1 ton of squalene
  • Already, an estimated 2.7 million to 3 million sharks are killed every year to make squalene, and the number could increase significantly if shark squalene is used in COVID-19 vaccines
  • Sustainable, plant-based squalene exists, but it costs about 30% more than shark squalene
  • Shark Allies has launched a petition calling for a ban on shark-derived squalene in COVID-19 vaccines

Sharks, many species of which are already threatened, are being killed in large numbers to make squalene, a component of some adjuvants added to vaccines, including experimental COVID-19 vaccines currently being tested.

Adjuvants are added to certain vaccines in order to increase the body’s immune response, thus potentially making it more effective. Adjuvants also decrease the amount of antigen, or active vaccine ingredients, needed to make the vaccine, which means more of them can be produced.1

Squalene, which is made from shark liver oil, may make up the main ingredient in some vaccine adjuvants, and is often used because it’s cheap and easy to source. Unfortunately, shark species are being decimated in the process.

COVID-19, Flu Vaccines May Contain Shark-Derived Squalene

Shark Allies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of sharks and rays, has warned that the demand for shark squalene could skyrocket if it becomes the main adjuvant ingredient in COVID-19 vaccines:

“MF59 is a common adjuvant containing shark-derived squalene that has been tested in the treatment of MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and in the use of an influenza vaccine. It is also currently being tested in COVID-19 vaccines. Since MF59 has been used as a component of other coronavirus treatments, it may be effective in COVID-19 vaccines.

As a result, the demand for shark squalene could skyrocket, leading to a significant increase in the killing and harvesting of sharks for their livers. MF59 is only one of the adjuvants containing squalene that is being used in COVID-19 vaccine testing.”2

Out of the 34 candidate COVID-19 vaccines being clinically evaluated, and 142 more in preclinical evaluation, 17 use adjuvants and five of them are shark-derived. Billions of COVID-19 vaccines will be produced, and it’s possible that second doses may be recommended, possibly per season.3

According to Shark Allies, about 3,000 sharks are killed to produce 1 ton of squalene. Already, an estimated 2.7 million to 3 million sharks are killed every year to make squalene, and the number could increase significantly if shark squalene is used in COVID-19 vaccines.4 Shark squalene is already being used in the adjuvant of certain influenza vaccines on the market.

Basking sharks and gulper sharks, which are vulnerable species, are among those being particularly targeted for being rich in squalene, and further exploitation could lead to further declines in population. The process simply isn’t sustainable, according to Stefanie Brendl, founder and executive director of Shark Allies. She told the New Zealand Herald:

"Harvesting something from a wild animal is never going to be sustainable, especially if it's a top predator that doesn't reproduce in huge numbers. There's so many unknowns of how big and how long this pandemic might go on, and then how many versions of it we have to go through, that if we continue using sharks, the numbers of sharks taken for this product could be really high, year after year after year."5

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Sharks Targeted Due to Cheap Cost, Not Effectiveness

Why are sharks being targeted for squalene? It’s not because they’re the only source. Rather, it’s likely due to cost. Sustainable, plant-based squalene exists, but it costs about 30% more than shark squalene.6 Shark squalene can be obtained from liver oil using only one distillation phase in a process that takes about 10 hours to produce squalene with greater than 98% purity.

According to Shark Allies, olive oil squalene requires nearly 70 hours of processing to create squalene with a purity of 92% or greater.7 This isn’t the only option, however, as the company Amryis already produces synthetic squalene that’s used in cosmetics. The synthetic squalene is produced by fermenting sugar cane using yeast, which creates the chemical farnesene that’s used to make squalene.8

While the synthetic version isn’t approved for use in vaccines, the company’s chief executive told the New Zealand Herald that they’re working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on approval and are also negotiating with three pharmaceutical companies that are interested in a “significant volume” of the product.9

Amyris reportedly stated that it would take them one month, or less, to make enough synthetic squalene for 1 billion vaccines, and Shark Allies added, “Squalene for adjuvants can be produced from yeast, bacteria, sugarcane, olive oil, and possibly even algae.”10

Petition Launched to Stop Using Sharks for COVID-19 Vaccines

Shark Allies has launched a petition to the U.S. FDA, the British Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the European Medicines Agency and the National Medical Products Administration in China, along with vaccine makers, calling for a ban on shark-derived squalene in COVID-19 vaccines.11

They asked regulatory agencies and pharmaceutical companies to replace shark squalene with squalene from non-animal sources as soon as possible, while supporting the development of large-scale production of non-animal squalene.

“Shark squalene is not a unique or ‘magical’ ingredient,” the petition notes. “The chemical structure of the compound squalene (C30H50) is identical in sharks and non-animal alternatives, meaning its efficacy in vaccines should be identical regardless of its source.”12

It’s urgent that already-threatened species like many sharks are not further exploited for ingredients that can be easily sourced elsewhere. On a related note, horseshoe crabs are also being targeted for COVID-19 vaccines, in their case for their blue blood, the only known source of limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), which is used to detect bacterial contaminants in vaccines.

In both cases, switching to synthetic alternatives has the potential to save the species without affecting vaccine production. Shark Allies explained, “Using sharks in COVID-19 vaccines is short-sighted, unpredictable, and unsustainable. There are better alternatives. The industry must listen.”13