Advocates worry about a COVID-19-culling of sharks

BOSTON — It is a compound that, when included in vaccines for other diseases - including HIV and cytomegalovirus, appears to enhance the body’s immune response.

But an advocacy group is petitioning pharmaceutical companies not to include squalene in its Covid-19 vaccine formulations -- if it’s derived from shark liver oil. The group claims five companies are currently working on Covid vaccine formulations containing that ingredient.

“It’s something you’re taking from the environment, it’s a limited resource,” said Stefanie Brendl, founder and executive director of Shark Allies, based in Venice California. “The supply chain is by no means guaranteed.”

Brendl’s group estimates every round of five to 6 billion doses of a Covid vaccine containing squalene would mean half a million sharks killed.

Unfortunately, she said, there would be nothing sustainable about those killings -- much of the animal would likely go to waste. “It is very tempting to only take the liver,” Brendl said. “Some species are really not good to eat and don’t have fins large enough to be worth anything, so the liver, then, is the only thing worth something.”

Add to that fact shark carcasses take up substantial room on ships.

“We’re not trying to take anything away from humanity and say don’t cure yourself,don’t create a vaccine,” Brendl said. “What we’re saying is the alternative is already there.”

The alternatives include plant-based sources of squalene, which should produce an identical effect to animal sources, Brendl said. Plants such as amaranth and olives don’t yield as much squalene as shark livers, she said, so the extraction process is more expensive.

Shark Allies worries that Americans may get the impression sharks are abundant, when it’s likely the opposite is true.

“People were used to decades of seeing no sharks and now that there are regular sightings they think sharks are taking over the world. It’s not really it,” Brendl said. “It’s that our baseline -- what we perceived as normal -- was so low.”

Shark populations rebound slowly because they reproduce in low numbers -- sometimes as few as two offspring -- and some species don’t give birth every year.

Sharks are also slow to mature. The Greeland shark, for example, reaches adulthood at age 150.

“You know it’s too bad the sharks get a bad name, just doing what they do,” said Jodie Cavanaugh, who was visiting Chatham.

Last March Cavanaugh successfully battled Covid-19, despite suffering from several comorbidities. He was heartened to learn plants could step in for sharks to provide squalene. “I’m not a big shark fan necessarily. But God put them here for millions of years. They just do what they’re supposed to do. And we get in the way.”

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