- A shark conservation group is calling for alternatives to using squalene harvested from the liver of sharks as an adjuvant in COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
- Shark conservation advocates estimate that an additional 500,000 sharks will be killed every year should squalene adjuvanted coronavirus vaccines become licensed for global general use.
- The group is asking pharmaceutical companies to explore more sustainable sources of squalene.
Shark Allies, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of sharks and rays (such as sting and electric rays) in oceans, is concerned that the production of a COVID-19 vaccine on a global scale could eventually completely destroy shark populations worldwide.1 Several vaccine candidates currently being tested in human clinical trials require an ingredient known as squalene, harvested from the liver of sharks. As the race to produce a COVID-19 vaccine intensifies, shark populations could become potentially endangered if the demand for squalene increases.2
What is Squalene?
Squalene is a natural oil produced by plants, animals and humans. In humans, oil glands hydrate and maintain the skin barrier. The amount of squalene that bodies naturally produce decreases with age. Cosmetics, supplements and skin products include squalene as an ingredient to moisturize the skin, claiming that the ingredient slows down the aging of skin.3
Shark liver oil, which contains squalene, has been extracted from shark livers for use in the cosmetic industry, especially. Companies that producing cosmetics are heavily dependent on high yielding shark-based squalene for their products due to its cost–effectiveness. Squalene is a common ingredient in sunscreens, lipsticks, eye shadows, lotions and foundations.4
Squalene is also found in many plants, such as olives, sugarcane, rice bran, yeasts and wheat germ, but plant-derived squalene is significantly more expensive to produce than animal squalene.5
Squalene Used As An Adjuvant In Many Vaccines
Adjuvants are added to vaccines to provoke a strong pro-inflammatory immune response that produces a high amount of antibodies.6 Squalene has been used as an adjuvant in many vaccines, which include vaccines for Influenza A H1N1 (Swine Flu), Asian Avian Influenza H5N1, Influenza A H7N9, Influenza A H7N7, other influenza vaccines (e.g. Fluad), rabies vaccines and anthrax vaccines.7
The National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) has pointed out that squalene adjuvants have not been tested compared to placebos in large trials and results published in scientific journals. In addition, there are no studies specifically evaluating cellular, molecular and DNA changes in the body after squalene-adjuvanted vaccines have been administered to children and adults.8
In a public comment in 2015, Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of NVIC said, “Squalene adjuvants hyper-stimulate the immune system and have been linked with development of autoimmunity, narcolepsy and other chronic disease.”9
Shark Allies Petitions Against Use of Shark Derived Squalene for COVID-19 Vaccines
Shark Allies point out that the MF59 adjuvant, which is an oil-in-water emulsion of squalene, is being used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Currently, at least five COVID-19 vaccine candidates use adjuvants that are based on shark squalene, including those manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, Clover Biopharmaceuticals, Seqirus/University of Queensland/CSL, Medicago, Inc. and Farmacologós eterinaries SAC/Universidad Peruana Cayetana Heredia.10
It is estimated that 2.7 million sharks are killed annually for squalene used in cosmetics. Shark Allies estimates projects that an additional 500,000 sharks would be killed if a COVID-19 vaccine containing shark squalene is approved for general use.11
Stephani Brendl, executive director of Shark Allies said, “The problem is that squalene, used as an ingredient in a COVID-19 vaccine, will be seen as something that’s unavoidable, and then as it becomes tested, it becomes the normal ingredient, and nothing else will be tested.”12 She noted that pharmaceutical companies must explore more sustainable squalene alternatives such as olive oil, sugar cane, wheat germ, bacteria and yeast since they have an identical chemical nature to shark squalene.13 The issue lies in the fact that these options can be 30 percent more expensive and take much longer to extract than squalene from sharks.14
“Our ask is that we start testing the alternatives, because long term, we cannot rely on a wild animal resource for a global need of anything. They (sharks) keep our fish stock healthy, they keep the food chain intact, they keep diseases out of other animal populations. Good luck trying to replace that when we lose them,” Brenda said.15
1 Brown E. A Coronavirus Vaccine Could Kill Half A Million Sharks, Conservationists Warn. NPR Oct. 10, 2020.
2 Aridi R. 500,000 Sharks Could Be Killed in the Race to Produce a Covid-19 Vaccine. Smithsonian Magazine Oct. 5, 2020.
3 What is Squalene? SharkAllies.com.
6 Fisher BL, Parpia R. GSK and Sanofi COVID-19 Vaccine Produced in Insect Cells with Squalene Adjuvant. The Vaccine Reaction May. 4, 2020.
7 What are Vaccine Adjuvants and Why are They Relevant to Shark Conservation? SharkAllies.com.
8 La Vigne P. FDA Approves Experimental H5N1 Bird Flu Vaccine with Reactive AS03 Adjuvant for U.S. Stockpile. NVIC.org Dec. 9, 2013.
9 Fisher BL. FDA Fast-Tracks Licensure of MF59 Adjuvanted Influenza Vaccine. NVIC.org Sept. 16, 2015.
10 Marquez M. Are Sharks Being Killed For Coronavirus Vaccines? Forbes Oct. 12, 2020.
11 See Footnote 1.
14 See Footnote 2.
15 See Footnote 1.