for National Geographic News
Vaccines being made to protect people from swine flu may not be so healthy for threatened species of sharks.
That's because millions of doses of the pandemic H1N1/09 vaccine contain a substance called squalene, which is extracted from shark livers. (Get more swine flu facts.)
More commonly found in beauty products such as skin creams, squalene can be used to make an adjuvant, a compound that boosts the body's immune response.
The World Health Organization recommends adjuvant-based vaccines, because they allow drug makers to create doses that use less of the active component, increasing available supplies.
Olive oil, wheat germ oil, and rice bran oil also naturally contain squalene, albeit in smaller amounts. But for now squalene is primarily harvested from sharks caught by commercial fishers, especially deepwater species. (Related: "Tomato, Tobacco Plants Produce SARS Vaccine.")
"There are several very disturbing issues associated with use of shark-liver-oil squalene," said Mary O'Malley, co-founder of the volunteer-run advocacy group Shark Safe Network.
"The deepwater sharks targeted have extremely low reproductive rates, and many are threatened species."
For example, one supplier has dubbed the gulper shark the Rolls-Royce of squalene-producing sharks—but the gulper is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Species, meaning the species faces a high risk of extinction.
Shark Oil Demand
Although vaccines containing squalene have not yet been approved for use in the U.S., they are being distributed elsewhere, including Europe and Canada.
Novartis, a drug company that produces swine flu vaccines containing shark squalene, did not answer requests for information about its squalene supply.
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), another major swine-flu vaccine producer, announced in October that it had received orders for 440 million doses of vaccine containing adjuvant.
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