Conservationists have warned that at least 5 lakh sharks are likely to be slaughtered in order to develop enough doses of an effective vaccine and immunize vaccines against COVID-19.
All vaccines consist of an immunological agent called adjuvant—meaning "to help" in Latin—which makes the vaccine more efficient by strengthening its immune response. With the help of adjuvants, vaccines can produce more antibodies, and effectively arm consumers with longer-lasting immunity against the disease.
One such adjuvant is squalene, natural oil that is present in the liver of sharks. However, it comes at the price of mass-murder—in order to obtain one tonne of squalene, approximately 3,000 sharks need to be killed.
Now, Shark Allies, a California-based conservation group, has warned that in order to create one dose of COVID-19 vaccine each for every single person on the planet, about 2.5 lakh sharks will have to be killed for their liver oil. However, if two doses are required per person, then the number of sharks would double to 5 lakh.
While squalene is also found in the livers of many other animals, sharks remain the major commercial sources for this natural organic compound.
As per estimates made by conservationists, around 30 lakh sharks are killed every year so that human beings can utilise squalene in cosmetics, machine oil, and other products. British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, which has announced mass production of 100 crore doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, has already been using shark squalene to make flu vaccines.
However, conservationists fear that this sudden spike in demand for mass production of vaccines will not just threaten the shark population, but may eventually lead to their endangerment as well, especially considering these top predators do not reproduce in huge numbers.
In fact, species like the gulper shark and the basking shark, which are rich in this oil, are already vulnerable, and if targeted further, they could be under some serious threat.
To protect the shark species, scientists have been actively working on a synthetic version of squalene made from fermented sugar cane.
But with such an enormous, urgent, and ever-increasing requirement for vaccines against the novel coronavirus, which has so far infected 3.3 crore and killed 10 lakh people around the world, the number of sharks sacrificed for its production may even exceed the predicted number and continue to soar higher and higher.