Conservationists have warned as many as half a million sharks could be killed for a coronavirus vaccine to immunise the global population. 

As researchers attempt to come up with a vaccine for the virus that has sent the world into lockdown, a number of candidates have been tried and tested.

Potential vaccines contain squalene, a natural oil made in the liver of sharks. The substance is currently used in medicine as an adjuvant; an ingredient that increases the effectiveness of a vaccine by creating a stronger immune response.

Half a million sharks could die to save us from COVID-19
Half a million sharks could die to save us from COVID-19

Squalene is used by the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline for flu vaccines, and the company announced in May that it would manufacture a billion doses of this adjuvant for potential use in coronavirus vaccines, Sky News reports.

Around 3,000 sharks are needed to extract one tonne of squalene, and experts have warned that hundreds of thousands of sharks could suffer if the natural oil is used in the vaccines.

Shark Allies, a California-based group, said that if the world’s population each received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine containing the liver oil, around 250,000 sharks would need to be slaughtered, depending on the amount of squalene used.

Half a million sharks could die to save us from COVID-19
Half a million sharks could die to save us from COVID-19

The figure is shocking as it is, but researchers believe it is likely that two doses of a vaccine will be needed to immunise the global population, meaning the amount of sharks slaughtered could increase to half a million.

Stefanie Brendl, founder and executive director of Shark Allies, commented:

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.

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Conservationists estimate that around three million sharks are already killed every year for squalene, which is also used in cosmetics and machine oil. A sudden rise in demand could threaten populations as many species rich in squalene, such as the gulper shark, are already vulnerable.

Change.org petition started by Shark Allies explains:

The supply chain has never been tested at the scale that a coronavirus vaccine would demand. There is also very little quality control and transparency in the shark squalene industry.

In a nutshell, exploiting sharks for a key vaccine ingredient that can be derived from more sustainable and reliable non-animal alternatives is a detrimental and destructive approach.

In an effort to prevent threatening shark populations with mass slaughtering, scientists are testing an alternative to squalene with a synthetic version made from fermented sugar cane.

Shark Allies is calling for non-animal-based alternatives to be used ‘in all tests for current and future products that use squalene’, and for the support and development of a ‘large-scale production of non-animal squalene’.

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