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PETA urges DCGI to replace calf serum method in Covaxin production


People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, on Thursday, requested the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) to replace Newborn Calf Serum (NBCS) with an animal-free chemical solution, in the production of the Covid-19 vaccine, Covaxin.

PETA India’s request comes a day after the Central government clarified that Covaxin does not contain newborn calf serum at all. Reacting to reports suggesting the contrary, the government said “facts have been twisted and misrepresented”, adding “Newborn Calf Serum is used only for preparation or growth of vero cells.”

The Union Ministry of Health had clarified, “This technique has been used for decades in Polio, Rabies, and Influenza vaccines. These vero cells, after the growth, are washed with water, with chemicals (also technically known as buffer), many 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. 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.”

PETA wrote a letter to DCGI’s, Dr. V.G. Somani, saying, “PETA India looks to the Drugs Controller to ensure that vaccine manufacturers switch to an available animal-free medium that overcomes the limitations associated with the use of animal-derived serum.”

It advised against using NBCS that is extracted from the blood of slaughtered calves. “The calves used in the extraction of this serum are taken away from their mothers shortly after birth, which traumatizes and distresses both the mother and calf,” said PETA India Science Policy Adviser Dr. Ankita Pandey.

It reasoned 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.  It could also delay Covid-19 vaccine production if shortages are experienced as vaccine production increases.

“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,” PETA India said in the letter.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Slaughterhouse) Rules, 2001, prohibits the slaughter of pregnant animals and animals under 3 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.