Drop calf serum use in Covaxin production, PETA tells drugs regulator

Says practice is cruel as young calves are separated from cows, and that animal-free alternatives are readily available

Bharat Biotech has said Covaxin is ‘pure’, with nil traces of new-born calf serum in the finished product.

Jumping into the controversy over the use of new-born calf serum (NBCS) in the production of COVID vaccine Covaxin, PETA India on Thursday urged the Centre to replace it with an animal-free chemical solution.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ letter to VG Somani, the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGA), in this regard came a day after the Centre clarified that Covaxin, manufactured by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, does not contain calf serum.

Also read: Health Ministry refutes claim on calf serum in Covaxin

NBCS does not go into the vaccine; rather, it is used in the first step of the production process, the government had said.

How the controversy started

Congress leader Gaurav Pandhi recently shared an RTI (Right to Information) reply on social media that said NBCS is used as a growth agent for Vero cells in the Covaxin production process.

The Centre hit back saying the vaccine itself doesn’t contain animal serum, and that the Opposition is twisting and misrepresenting facts in a way that would increase vaccine hesitancy in the country. It said Vero cells, after growth, are washed thoroughly, and there are no remnants of NBCS.

But Pandhi argued that newborn calves are slaughtered for obtaining serum. Bharat Biotech has not specified how it procures calf serum. But animal welfare activists have said that the procurement of serum — be it indigenously or via imports —is in itself cruel.

Need for slaughter of calves

The PETA argued that the process would require calves to be taken away from their mothers shortly after birth. NBCC is “extracted from the blood of slaughtered calves under 20 days old”, said the letter, pointing out that animal-free alternatives are already available in the market.

“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,” said PETA India Science Policy Adviser Ankita Pandey in the letter. “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.”

PETA said the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Slaughter House) Rules, 2001, prohibits the slaughter of pregnant animals and animals under three months of age. “Therefore, the use of serum obtained by slaughtering a calf younger than 20 days of age for vaccine production should also not be allowed,” it said.

‘Inappropriate, unethical’

“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 letter added.

It also suggested that there is risk of contamination in the vaccine from animal serum. However, Bharat Biotech said Covaxin is ‘pure’, with nil trace of NBCS in the finished product.