Recently, the Opposition parties have raked up the issue of ‘calf serum’ in Covaxin, a vaccine against Covid-19 indigenously developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) — National Institute of Virology (NIV).
In a tweet yesterday, Congress party’s national coordinator for digital communications and social media Gaurav Pandhi said:
“In an RTI response, the Modi Govt has admitted that Covaxin consists Newborn Calf Serum... which is a portion of clotted blood obtained from less than 20 days young cow-calves, after slaughtering them. THIS IS HEINOUS! This information should have been made public before.”
Pandhi shared the response of the government to an Right to Information (RTI) filed for information on Covaxin.
The implication of the tweet seems to be that the government somehow hid the fact from the public that “Covaxin consists of newborn Calf serum”.
Does Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin contain newborn Calf serum?
No. The vaccine is developed using ‘Whole-Virion Inactivated Vero Cell derived platform’ technology, which means it consists of the deactivated form of the Covid-19 virus to trigger protective immunity in the body.
The genetic material of the virus in the vaccine is destroyed by heat, chemicals or radiation so they cannot infect cells and replicate, but can still trigger an immune response.
When a person is administered Covaxin, it does not mean they are being injected with the newborn calf serum. Since the vaccine is basically the inactivated form of the virus, its mass production requires fast replication of the Covid-19 virus. The cultivation of the virus has to be done in some sort of an organic medium which is sufficient for fast replication.
Scientists need to grow cells in the lab for the purpose. They need to provide conditions, broadly, the nutrients as well as “growth factors”, that allow cells to divide and turn into the required specific cell type.
An embryo is naturally rich in these growth factors. This is where the serum from the newborn calves comes into the picture. Different kinds of bovine and other animal serum are standard enrichment ingredients used around the world for the growth of vero cells.
After the growth in the serum, the vero cells are washed many times with water as well as chemicals to remove the serum completely. Then, these vero cells are infected with the coronavirus for viral growth.
In the process of viral growth, the vero cells are completely destroyed. Next, the grown virus is also killed (inactivated) and purified.
“This killed virus is then used to make the final vaccine, and in the final vaccine formulation no calf serum is used. Hence, the final vaccine (COVAXIN) does not contain newborn calf serum at all and the calf serum is not an ingredient of the final vaccine product,” reads the clarification from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Also, this information about the serum was by no means hidden from the public. A research paper released by the Indian Council of Medical Research and Bharat Biotech in September 2020 about Covaxin clearly mentions it.
The RTI response shared by Pandhi also clearly states that the serum is used in the “revival process of Vero Cells which is used for the production of Coronavirus during the manufacturing of COVAXIN bulk vaccine...”
Tradition Versus Modernity
Cultures around the world have traditional restrictions regarding the usage of different animal products. Many countries have incorporated these sensibilities in their legal regimes on food and consumption, even financial systems.
In India, violence against nature, including all animals, is culturally discouraged. However, cow holds a special place among them.
Even though the vaccine doesn’t contain serum from calves, the usage of the same in the production might concern the persons of traditional persuasion. One has to remember that the concern is to minimise violence against animals, especially the cow, and in itself, is a worthy goal.
That goal has to be balanced with the need for Yogkshema — or the general welfare — which in this case, is served by vaccinating the population.
In contemporary times, the standard practice is to collect the blood from the calf within three to 10 days of its birth.
The cow serum is simply popular due to the wider availability of large cattle farms in countries like Australia, New Zealand and the US. It is a by-product of the global dairy industry (serum for biological research in India is largely imported from foreign countries).
But there are also other, more animal friendly options available. For example, the recombinant DNA technology which combines together genetic material from different organisms and inserts it into a host organism. This allows scientists to artificially produce many of the above-mentioned growth factors in the lab.
While the technology is more expensive and requires specialised labs, the global community can look into it to enhance the ethical value of the modern biological research.
The real issue here, however, is the sensationalism and misuse of cultural sensibilities of the people to create vaccine hesitancy. Such attempts, purportedly just to discredit the ruling dispensation, can have serious effect on the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Cow slaughter has a long history of being used as a weapon of religious persecution in the subcontinent. Understandably, it is an emotive issue.
The ill-intended comments regarding cow slaughter over Covaxin, stoking Hinduphobic cow-gau mutra jibes and communal rhetoric, are not only detrimental to the fight against the coronavirus, but also insensitive and reckless given the historical facts surrounding the issue.
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