Serum extracted by slaughtering calves for Covaxin production unethical: PETA asks DCGI to direct makers to switch to animal-free media
New Delhi: Intervening in the ongoing controversy over the presence of newborn calf serum in the indigenous Covid-19 vaccine, Covaxin, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India has asked the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) to direct vaccine makers to replace New Born Calf Serum (NBCS) with animal-free, commercially available, and chemically defined media in the production of the Covid-19 vaccine.
The animal rights organization, in its letter to Dr V G Somani stated, "PETA India looks to the Drugs Controller to ensure that vaccine manufacturers switch to available animal-free media that overcome the limitations associated with the use of animal-derived serum."
According to a recent media report in The Hindustan Times, the controversy erupted after a tweet by Congressman Gaurav Pandhi, who shared an RTI document that went viral on Twitter. According to information provided by the firm in response to the RTI, newborn calf serum is used in the revival process of Vero cells used in the production of coronavirus during the manufacturing of Bharat Biotech's Covaxin.
The daily further reports that calling the process as heinous, Gaurav Pandhi wrote on Twitter, "In an RTI response, the Modi Govt has admitted that Covaxin consists of 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. "
In addition to this Gaurav Pandhi also provided a study paper on how cow calf serum is obtained.
This sparked a rush of tweets, with some expressing vaccination anxiety and others dismissing the allegation.
However, a couple of days ago, Bharat Biotech released a statement clarifying that this method is not new nor secret. "Newborn calf serum is used in the manufacturing of viral vaccines. It is used for the growth of cells, but neither used in the growth of SARS CoV2 virus nor in the final formulation. Covaxin is highly purified to contain only the inactivated virus components by removing all other impurities," the statement read.
Listing out the name of the publication, the company was quoted as saying by HT, "The usage of new born calf serum was transparently documented in the following publications since the last 9 months."
Besides, the Government also issued a clarification stating, "Facts have been twisted and misrepresented in these posts. Newborn calf serum is used only for the preparation/growth of vero cells. Different kinds of bovine and other animal serum are standard enrichment ingredient used globally for vero cell growth. Vero cells are used to establish cell lives which help in production of vaccines. This technique has been used for decades in Polio, Rabies, and Influenza vaccines."
The government added, "These vero cells, after the growth, are washed with water, chemicals (also technically known as buffer), many a times to make it free from the newborn calf serum. Thereafter, these vero cells are infected with coronavirus for viral growth."
The vero cells are completely destroyed in the process of viral growth, the Centre said, and added, "Thereafter this 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."
However, PETA pointed out that the use of serum obtained by slaughtering a calf younger than 20 days of age for vaccine production should also not be allowed as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Slaughter House) Rules, 2001, prohibits the slaughter of pregnant animals and animals under 3 months of age.
"Numerous states in India have banned the slaughter of cows and sometimes calves, bulls, and buffaloes. In a country where killing cows and often calves is prohibited by law, it would be considered inappropriate and unethical by most to import and use NBCS manufactured by killing those same animals in other countries," the organization stated.
It further claimed that the use of animal-derived components such as NBCS in vaccine production compromises the quality and reproducibility of research and is often associated with the risk of contamination by non-human proteins and pathogens.
"Animal-free media are already commercially available and can be used to grow Vero cells for virus production instead of using NBCS extracted by slaughtering calves. A modernising methods of vaccine production is an immediate necessity," PETA stated.
PETA India Science Policy Adviser Dr Ankita Pandey told IndiaToday, "The calves used in the extraction of this serum are taken away from their mothers shortly after birth, which traumatises and distresses both the mother and calf."