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  1. Good Science Digest

  2. Oct 29, 2020

The Fight to Replace Shark-Based Vaccine Ingredients With Sustainable, Plant-Based Sources

Photo: Getty Images

An important vaccine ingredient is historically sourced from sharks, but the Physicians Committee and other groups are challenging the notion that this must be the case.

You may have heard of this ingredient, as it’s also commonly used in skincare products as a moisturizing agent: squalene. It acts as an adjuvant, a vaccine component that works to boost the body’s immune response to vaccines, thereby making them more effective. 

According to Shark Allies, a nonprofit shark protection advocacy organization, 19 of the 193 candidate COVID-19 vaccines currently in clinical or preclinical evaluation stages use adjuvants, and five of those use shark-based squalene as an adjuvant. They estimate that the squalene needed for COVID-19 vaccines could cost the lives of half a million sharks. Shark-based squalene is extracted from the livers of deceased sharks and traded all over the world for uses in medicine, cosmetics, lamp fuel, leather tanning, and more, in processes that often lack transparency or are outright deceitful. Shark liver oil represents a fraction of sharks killed each year, but making this fishy behavior even worse is the fact that about half of shark species targeted for squalene are “vulnerable” to extinction

But squalene can be derived from nonanimal sources too, such as olive oil, sugar cane, wheat germ, bacteria, and yeast, yielding an ingredient that has identical chemical properties as the shark-based version. According to manufacturers, shark-based squalene is higher quality and cheaper than nonanimal squalene, but nonanimal squalene production methods can be developed and scaled up to meet commercial needs. Continued global dependence on squalene from limited wild animal sources is shortsighted and irresponsible.

In the interest of patients, consumers, and producers alike, it’s time for pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry leaders to make the switch to sustainable sources for squalene. The Physicians Committee, Shark Allies, and other groups are working hard to get this accomplished by urging companies to develop, test, and scale-up production of nonanimal squalene. You can take action too by signing this petition and continuing to support our important work.

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