Post from National Geographic by JUSTIN MENEGUZZI
Trawling for prey at more than a thousand feet under the surface, scalloped hammerhead sharks rely on a special oil in their livers to survive the crushing pressures of the deep.
Shark liver oil, or squalene, is a fatty substance that provides vital buoyancy for this critically endangered species and many others. But it’s also used by humans as a boosting agent in vaccines, called an adjuvant, that improves the immune system and makes vaccines more effective.
As the world’s pharmaceutical companies scramble to create a vaccine for COVID-19, at least five of the 202 vaccine candidates rely on squalene sourced from wild-caught sharks.
One candidate is a vaccine developed in Australia by University of Queensland, in partnership with the Australian biopharmaceutical company CSL and its subsidiary Seqirus. The as yet unnamed vaccine contains the squalene adjuvant MF59, which is sourced from a variety of shark species. It entered human clinical trials earlier this year and, if successful, will result in an initial production of 51 million doses.
Tens of millions of sharks are caught and traded internationally each year—both legally and illegally—the majority for their meat and fins but roughly three million or more for their squalene. It takes the livers of between 2,500 and 3,000 sharks to extract about a ton of squalene.
Conservationists fear that increased demand for squalene for vaccines, among other uses, could further imperil shark species, a third of which are vulnerable to extinction.
“This is an unsustainable demand to place on a finite natural resource like sharks,” says Stefanie Brendl, founder and executive director of Shark Allies, a California-based conservation non-profit.
Only about one percent of squalene ends up in vaccines, and most goes into cosmetics such as sunscreen, skin creams, and moisturisers. Even so, as the global population booms, the need for vaccines will only increase in coming years, Brendl notes, adding that some medical experts suggest that people will require multiple doses of vaccines against COVID-19.
“We’re not saying that vaccine trials should stop, but if we keep viewing sharks as an easy solution and don’t consider the alternatives that exist, then we’ll just continue to use [squalene] as a template for vaccines,” Brendl says.
In light of declining shark populations, some biotech companies are looking for other sources of squalene. Plants such as sugarcane, olives, amaranth seeds, and rice bran, for instance, all contain the substance. While plant-based alternatives are being tested in studies and clinical trials, regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have yet to approve them as part of a final vaccine product.
Brendl says the onus is on pharmaceutical companies to begin developing viable alternatives to shark squalene to present to regulators. She points out that Novavax, an American vaccine-development company, is already using an alternative squalene adjuvant, Matrix-M, in clinical trials for its experimental COVID-19 vaccine. Matrix-M is made from the bark of the soapbark tree, which is abundant in Chile.
Though the company has deemed the soapbark adjuvant as safe, it has not yet been evaluated as part of a final product submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
However, the Infectious Disease Research Institute found that pharmaceutical-grade squalene produced by the American biotechnology company Amyris met, and in some cases exceeded, the safety and purity profiles of shark-based squalene, according to Chris Paddon, Amyris’s lead scientist.
Amyris is banking on sugarcane as a solution to shark-based squalene, he says. In southeastern Brazil, the company is growing thousands of acres of the bamboo-like sugarcane to be processed into squalene. Just 24 acres of sugarcane could, in theory, produce enough squalene to support one billion COVID-19 vaccines.
Because growers can control the way sugarcane is grown and harvested, it’s possible to ensure the quality of the squalene, Paddon says. “When you use animal products, there are impurities that come with them because of the environment they’re raised in and the places where they’re processed.” Furthermore, Paddon says, growing sugarcane is also cheaper than catching sharks and removing their livers.
Sign this Shark Allies petition demanding that the US/FDA (Food and Drug Administration of the United States of America), the UK/MHRA (The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency of the United Kingdom), the EU/EMA (The European Medicines Agency), the National Medical Products Administration of China, and all vaccine producing companies use non-animal squalene in all vaccines.
Thank you ❤
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