How a Vaccine for COVID-19 Could Mean the Deaths of Half a Million Sharks

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

COVID-19 has swept across the planet and has resulted in the disruption of peoples lives and caused numerous deaths. The need for a vaccine has become paramount. However, the development of a COVID-19 vaccine could cause detrimental effects on marine ecosystems by the potential killing and harvesting of half a million sharks. Here's how the use of shark derived squalene in a COVID-19 could mean the collapse of the marine world.

What is squalene and what is it used for?

Squalene is a natural organic compound found in shark liver oil. Unlike fish, sharks don't have swim bladders to help them stay afloat, instead, they have large livers filled with oil to help them regulate their buoyancy. Sharks livers can sometimes make up 30% of their total body weight! Sadly, it's not only sharks that use and reek the benefit from their liver oil, humans have been killing sharks to harvest their liver oil for years. Shark derived squalene can be found in many cosmetic products ranging from face creams, lipsticks, tanning oils and anti-ageing products, 90% of all harvested shark liver oil is used in cosmetics! Squalene is said to have moisturising, anti-ageing and soothing benefits for the skin. However, when you realise that over 3 million deep-sea sharks are hunted and killed for their livers each year and it takes around 3,000 sharks to harvest 1 ton of squalene, these 'skin benefits' don't seem worth it.

Basking sharks are one of the many species of sharks that are fished for their liver oil ("Basking Shark" by yohancha is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

How does it relate to COVID-19?

Squalene is used as an adjuvant, adjuvants are used in vaccines to increase the human body's immune response, thusly making the vaccine more effective. Additionally, using an adjuvant means less of the active vaccine antigen is needed which allows more vaccines to be made. In 2018, it was reported that less than 9% of harvested shark liver oil was used in pharmaceuticals. However, this could be set to change due to the development of a COVID-19 vaccination. Development of a COVID-19 vaccine is currently underway, sadly, as reported by Shark Allies they are currently using shark derived squalene in the vaccine. GlaxoSmithKline (a British pharmaceutical company) currently use shark derived squalene in a flu vaccine, they have announced that they will produce a billion doses of the adjuvant as a potential COVID-19 vaccine. Shark Allies estimated that if this vaccine goes through the amount needed for everyone to take the vaccine once would cause the death of 250,000 sharks if it was given twice it could cause the deaths of half a million! Shark Allies are doing everything they can to help prevent this from happening - PLEASE sign their petition asking for the use of shark derived squalene in the vaccine and in other products to ceases ASAP!

Half a million sharks could be killed if shark liver oil is used in the COVID-19 vaccination (Image source:

Is there an alternative?

In no way am I trying to downplay the importance and urgency of finding a vaccine for COVID-19, the virus has reeked devastation in peoples lives across the globe. However, we need to think of a more sustainable solution than destroying our natural world - which is arguably the reason for the rise in new emerging diseases like this one anyway! There are many alternatives for shark derived squalene that work as an adjuvant already out there, such as oils from olives, amaranth seed, sugarcane, rice bran and wheat germ. We need to stop exploiting the planet like we have an infinite amount of natural resources, especially when it comes to the already fragile population on sharks!

What does this mean for shark populations?

Sharks populations have been decreasing rapidly for years. An estimated 100 million sharks die each year because of human exploitation! This has lead to 25% of all shark species being at risk of extinction. Shark populations are at breaking point! If we continue with this level of exploitation we will inevitably lose species altogether. Over 50 species are fished for their liver oil, many of which are listed on the 'IUCN Red List of Threatened Species', these include basking sharks, kitefin sharks and thresher sharks. When you add killing sharks for a COVID-19 vaccination to their already fragile populations (due to things like overfishing, bycatch, marine pollution etc.) the chances of them surviving are worryingly low, if not at all. Sharks are paramount in marine ecosystems they help to other marine species populations and the removal of them can cause the collapse of ecosystems. If you want to know more we have a blog post all about the important sharks play in the world and how they are more beneficial to us alive than dead - Read it here!

The overfishing of sharks has caused their populations to become unstable and put species at risk of extinction ("Fresh shark fins drying on the sidewalk" by nicwn is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

How can you help?

As mentioned before sign the petition by Shark Allies! Additionally, don't buy products with shark derived squalene in, ingredients don't always have to list what type of squalene it is, but companies against the use of shark products will often make clear that it's plant-derived squalene. A common misconception is that none shark squalene will be spelt 'squalane', however, this isn't always the case! So a good rule of thumb is if a brand isn't fully transparent about where they source their squalene from it's better to just avoid their products completely. It may seem like avoiding products with shark liver oil in is pointless when the current issue is to do with the manufacturing of vaccines, but around 2.4 million sharks are killed for their liver oil each year just for the cosmetics industry!

Ruth x

P.s Don't forget to sign the petition!

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