COVID-19 has affected everyone in one way or another, but humans aren’t the only organisms being both directly and indirectly affected by the virus. With over 150 trial vaccines currently being developed, there is an overwhelming sense of hope for humans, but it comes at a cost. The world’s current COVID-19 vaccine research is affecting animals, including mink, sharks, and monkeys.
On November 5, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that Denmark would exterminate the country’s entire mink population following the transmission of a new, antibody-resistant strain of COVID from the animals to 12 humans. Denmark’s 1,000 operational mink farms are home to more than 17 million mink total, all of whom will be culled in the coming weeks to prevent further transmission of the new, resistant strain of the virus. This new strain threatens to nullify all research Denmark completed regarding a vaccination, thus far.
This is not the first case of mink transferring coronavirus to humans. This summer, several positive COVID tests resulted in the culling of 100,000 minks in Spain’s Aragón province and tens of thousands of minks in the Netherlands. Though Danish officials say that it is unknown why mink can catch and spread the mutated virus, new studies are underway.
Shark advocates are concerned that pharmaceutical companies will drastically reduce the current shark population in favor of collecting squalene, an oily substance most found in shark livers that increase the efficacy of vaccines. Often used as a moisturizing agent in cosmetic products, squalene works as an adjuvant in vaccines; the oil causes a stronger immune response from the patient when a vaccine is administered.
Not all companies racing towards the vaccine are using squalene, and some are using the harder to come by plant-based squalene from olive oil and other sources, but an estimate from shark advocacy group Shark Allies reveals that up to half a million sharks could be harvested to produce enough squalene to vaccinate all of America.
A more realistic estimate from Catherine Macdonald, who specializes in marine conservation biology and ecology at the University of Miami, concludes that around 360,000 sharks would produce enough squalene, should one of these vaccines become the frontrunner in the coming months.
“Some fisheries associated with squalene production are targeting deep-sea sharks… We know that deep-sea environments are evolved with very low natural levels of disturbance, so any time we are having meaningful effects on deep-sea populations, we know less about them, and we’re less able to detect the effects we’re having,” Macdonald explained in an interview with Ben Conarck of the Miami Herald.
Vaccinations usually go through several distinct rounds of animal testing before they are administered in human trials. The final stage of animal testing is typically in monkeys since primates’ immune responses closely resemble those of their human counterparts. Currently, there are too many vaccines being produced and not enough monkeys to stand in as test subjects, which is drastically slowing the process of creating an effective vaccine.
Dr. Skip Bohm, who is the associate director and chief veterinary medical officer at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, explained that “We’ve always been in a state where we were always very close to the level of production to meeting the demand for research, and that has been the status for several years. When the COVID pandemic came about, that just pressed us even further.”
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