Conservationists sound alarms after oil from shark liver identified as COVID-19 vaccine ingredient

A Mangona Shark swims at the Rio de Janeiro Aquarium on the eve of the reopening of the touristic attraction on August 14 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images)

Scientists say the ocean's apex predator may hold a key ingredient in the fight against COVID-19.

An oil called squalene is found in high concentrations in the livers of sharks.

Lisa Merly, a senior lecturer who studies shark immunology at the University of Miami, says squalene is also used in cosmetics, but medical-grade squalene is purer and that kind is found in the livers of deepwater sharks.

Squalene has been used in other vaccines as a kind of superadditive.

“To get the immune system engaged so that you get a really good response,” says Merly.

If high-grade squalene becomes a key ingredient for billions of vaccinations, the predators of the deep could become prey.

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Conservationists worry that threatened shark species could be overfished. They hope squalene is taken from sharks in regulated populations that have already been landed for other purposes, but they’re calling on pharmaceutical companies to know where their squalene comes from.

“I think it's reasonable to put some pressure on these companies to be clear and transparent,” says Merly.

She says we don’t know what other medical breakthroughs may come from sharks. Researchers are looking at sharks for models of antibodies that could fight COVID-19 and other diseases.

As we look to the sea to prevent COVID-19, some say we should also be careful to prevent a mass killing of sharks.