Analysis: Could 500,000 sharks die for a COVID vaccine?

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Half-a-million sharks could die to provide the world with a coronavirus vaccine.

Why? Squalene, a chemical made from shark liver oil that is used in vaccines. It’s not necessarily more effective at boosting a vaccine’s efficacy than squalene found in other sources, according to conservation group Shark Allies, but it’s cheap.

It takes 3,000 sharks to produce 1 ton of shark squalene, according to Shark Allies, and the organization estimates that about 3 million sharks are killed already for the purpose every year.

Based on that organization’s math, 21,000 sharks would have to be killed to provide enough COVID-19 vaccine for every American citizen to get two doses. Scale that out globally and you are looking at about 490,000 dead sharks.

“This could spell potential disaster for sharks and humans since this resource is neither sustainable nor reliable for the mass production of a COVID-19 vaccine,” Shark Allies wrote on a petition. “Countries producing shark squalene may soon need the oil for their own vaccine. The supply chain has never been tested at the scale that a coronavirus vaccine would demand.”

It’s not a new issue. The World Health Organization has said that since 1997, 22 million doses of a flu vaccine containing shark-derived squalene have been administered globally.

But if a coronavirus vaccine using shark squalene is mass produced, Shark Allies and other conservationists worry that some species of the apex predator might not survive.

The good news is, it might not be necessary. Not all of the proposed COVID-19 vaccines contain squalene (used as an emulsifier) and the substance can be obtained from other sources, including plants.

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