Coronavirus: Is Our Cure Fuelling Another Problem?
Over the last couple of months, the coronavirus vaccines have sparked controversy across the media. The petition by Shark Allies entitled ‘Stop Using Sharks in COVID-19 Vaccine’ has received over 100,000 signatures and has provoked accusations of making human lives secondary to environmental issues [1-2]. Opposition to the #sharkfreevaccines campaign focuses on the relatively minor impact that the vaccines will have relative to the already immense scale of shark exploitation .
So, will the new coronavirus vaccine really have an impact on shark populations? And is it sensible or even feasible to avoid shark products?
Sharks in Vaccines
A number of companies developing coronavirus vaccines have come under fire due to the publicity that the #sharkfreevaccines movement has received [1,3-6]. The vaccines under development by these companies contain an ingredient called squalene, which can be derived in large quantities from shark livers [1,3-8]. It is used in vaccines as an adjuvant, serving to boost the immune system and increase the effectiveness of the vaccination [1,6].
Squalene is used by sharks as an energy store and a way of maintaining buoyancy and certain species contain more of it than others [3,5-6]. Deep-water shark species have a particularly high squalene content and are therefore heavily targeted by this industry, while already being overfished and in many cases threatened [6-8].
In an article by National Geographic, a spokesperson for one of the companies using shark-derived squalene said that their adjuvants are only sourced from non-protected shark species . However, she declined to respond to whether sustainable fishing practices are used when sourcing their ingredients.
Shark Allies have made it clear that their intentions are not to prevent people receiving the coronavirus vaccinations. Instead, they are attempting to push companies to use the more expensive plant-based alternatives and spread awareness of the scale of the global squalene market .
So how much of an impact could a few vaccines really have? How large can the squalene problem be if this is the first we’re hearing about it?
Sharks in Cosmetics
Shark Allies have been very successful in using the coronavirus pandemic to draw attention to the use of shark products, however only about 1% of the squalene purchased is used in vaccines .
The majority of shark liver oil is bought by the cosmetics industry [3,6,8]. Squalene is used in a wide variety of beauty products due to its abilities to improve hydration and reduce inflammation, skin damage and signs of aging [3,6,8-9].
Many manufacturers of these products do not know where their squalene is sourced from and may use labels such as ‘vegan’ and ‘cruelty-free’ that are unregulated and misleading . The term ‘cruelty-free’ can be used to refer to animal testing but does not tell you whether the product contains animal ingredients [9-10].
Shark products such as squalene can be avoided by looking for a ‘vegan’ label, however this term can be used without the product being officially certified . You can find an explanation of the official cosmetic certifications here .
So, if shark-derived squalene is this widely used, how can it be such a large issue? How much damage can shark fishing be doing?
Sharks in our Oceans
Sharks are being overfished globally for their meat and fins as well as their liver oil [3,6,8]. It is estimated that 70-100 million sharks are killed annually, although creating estimates is challenging as most of this fishing is illegal and therefore unreported . According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), over 60 species of sharks are considered ‘threatened’ and over half of these are targeted by the squalene industry alone .
Sharks play an essential role in our marine environment and to lose them would have impacts across whole habitats. Being top predators, they are a fundamental part of keeping ecosystems healthy, playing roles like reducing grazing pressure and controlling disease transmission by feeding on members of the community . Ecosystems that have higher shark abundances have demonstrated increased biodiversity and greater resilience to human interference .
Not only could the squalene industry be disastrous for our marine life, it could also be problematic for us as consumers. As mentioned in ‘Coronavirus: Single-Use Plastics – Are We Overreacting?’, toxins accumulate in animal tissues and are then consumed by their predators, meaning that top predators such as sharks have high levels of chemicals stored in their bodies . The use of shark-derived ingredients in cosmetic products therefore poses an unknown potential risk to the consumer, as it could result in the absorption of substances like mercury into the skin . There is a fantastic article explaining mercury bioaccumulation here .
Where Does This Leave Consumers?
Shark Allies have been successful in applying pressure to vaccine developers in efforts to push the use of squalene alternatives and reduce the exploitation of many threatened shark species.
Coronavirus vaccinations could require the liver oil of 500,000 sharks, however this may be insignificant when compared to the high demand for squalene from the cosmetics industry [1,4-5]. The plant-based alternative squalane is used in some beauty products (and is discussed here in more detail), although differentiating between the two forms can be difficult.
Consumers and individuals have proven to be very successful at driving change within society. Despite being responsible for the majority of squalene consumption, the cosmetics industry can be navigated with relative ease by shopping for vegan products.
Vaccines of course, are not so easily avoided.
The loss of sharks from our oceans could have devastating impacts on marine ecosystems and it is clear that change is necessary to prevent this. However, such change will continue to be especially challenging until the spread of coronavirus is controlled, and vaccinations seem to be the most effective way of doing this.
1. Donnelly D. Shark news: Coronavirus vaccine may see half a million KILLED for key component [Internet]. Express.co.uk. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/1340719/shark-news-coronavirus-vaccine-wildlife-expert-squalene-development-cases-second-wave
2. Sign the Petition [Internet]. Change.org. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.change.org/p/us-fda-food-and-drug-administration-of-the-united-states-of-america-stop-using-sharks-in-covid-19-vaccine-use-existing-sustainable-options
3. Wu K. Coronavirus Vaccine Makers Are Not Mass-Slaughtering Sharks [Internet]. Nytimes.com. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/science/sharks-vaccines-covid-squalene.html
4. Jimenez D. 500,000 sharks could be killed for use in coronavirus vaccine [Internet]. Metro. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://metro.co.uk/2020/09/27/500000-sharks-could-be-killed-for-use-in-coronavirus-vaccine-13334977/
5. Scribner H. Here’s how many sharks would be killed because of a COVID-19 vaccine [Internet]. Deseret News. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.deseret.com/u-s-world/2020/9/28/21459829/coronavirus-vaccine-sharks-covid-19-squalene
6. Meneguzzi J. Why a COVID-19 vaccine could further imperil deep-sea sharks [Internet]. National Geographic. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/11/why-covid-19-vaccine-further-imperil-deep-sea-sharks/
7. Fishing for Squalene | Shark Allies [Internet]. | Shark Allies. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.sharkallies.com/shark-free-products/cosmetics-why-sharks
8. Lebsack L. Uncovered: How Shark Fishing Made Squalane Beauty’s Buzziest Ingredient [Internet]. Rose Inc. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.roseinc.com/blogs/content/uncovered-how-shark-fishing-made-squalane-beautys-buzziest-ingredient
9. Labels and Lies: a Cosmetic Problem | Shark Allies [Internet]. | Shark Allies. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.sharkallies.com/shark-free-products/cosmetics-does-cruelty-free-mean-shark-free
10. Phillips S. A Guide to Beauty Certifications [Internet]. The Kind Store. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://www.thekindstoreonline.co.uk/blogs/news/a-guide-to-beauty-certifications
11. Friedlander A, DeMartini E. Contrasts in density, size, and biomass of reef fishes between the northwestern and the main Hawaiian islands: the effects of fishing down apex predators. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 2002;230:253-264.
12. Sandin S, Smith J, DeMartini E, Dinsdale E, Donner S, Friedlander A et al. Baselines and Degradation of Coral Reefs in the Northern Line Islands. PLoS ONE. 2008;3(2):e1548.
13. MacDonald C. Seafood, Mercury, and Bioaccumulation | Save Our Seas Foundation [Internet]. Save Our Seas Foundation. 2021 [cited 2 January 2021]. Available from: https://saveourseas.com/update/seafood-mercury-and-bioaccumulation/