Choose least harm, and work to widen the choices: A Jain position on acceptability of COVID19 vaccines developed with animal byproducts and testing

This post was written to answer a question that was raised in the JAINA webinar on 12/27/2020 and sent by email to the JAINA education committee on the acceptability of the COVID19 vaccines in use from a Jain vegetarian and vegan perspective. Views are mine as lead of the Ahimsak Eco-Vegan Committee, as a physician who has worked in vaccine development and drug safety, and who has also been vegan since 1990. I have also included resources from other vegans as helpful views to consider.

Animal ingredients and testing in vaccines

Both mRNA vaccines, the Pfizer/Biontech and Moderna vaccines, contain fetal bovine serum (FBS) to culture cell lines used in production of the vaccines and use animal testing, as required by regulatory agencies, for early stages (preclinical) of vaccines development. Some of the vaccine candidates use shark derived squalene as an adjuvant (to increase the immune response to a vaccine). The blood of horseshoe crabs is used to test for contamination. Animal testing was conducted, though side by side with human experimentation of the early COVID-19 vaccines. No doubt there is animal suffering in these steps of vaccine development and production ideally we would have alternatives. A supplier of FBS acknowledges that alternatives should be developed but so far are not adequate

However, COVID19 vaccines are not unique. Many vaccines have animal components as medium nutrients and some as stabilizers or protein purifiers.

Regulators require vaccines and drugs to be tested on animals.

Here is an excellent Op-Ed with a discussion of animal research and COVID vaccines.

It is clear and direct. “Refusing to take a vaccine on ethical grounds will not help animals who have already been used in tests but could lead to a decline in our health — and our ability to speak up for animals in the future. What is needed is a change in the law so that animals are no longer required to suffer in regulatory tests.”

Choosing the least harmful option in an world that exploits animals endlessly

Our foremost ethical principle is ahimsa. There is not an absolute prohibition against taking medication and vaccines that have been developed or tested on animals or that continue to be produced using animal byproducts. However, where we can find alternatives, we choose the least harmful. If a woman needs to take estrogen for menopausal symptoms, it would be better to take yam based estradiol rather than pregnant mare urine derived conjugated estrogens. It would be preferable to take vegan Vitamin D3 and DHA rather than that derived from animal sources. Some vegans are able to find compounding pharmacists to make the active ingredients of a medicine available without encapsulating it in gelatin.

In the case of COVID19, the benefits of vaccination are an order of magnitude greater than most since the disease has ignited a global pandemic. In addition to the human suffering that is foremost in our minds, animals, such as mink have been killed because of their potential risk to re-infect humans. In the US, so far no vaccine has been FDA approved, rather they are being used with Emergency Use Authorization. However, they are 95% efficacious, have local and non serious side effects in the time frame studied so far, and, along with continued social distancing and wearing of masks, represent society’s best hope to end a pandemic by decreasing transmission of SARSCoV2. Healthcare workers, elderly in nursing homes and others who have no choice but to interact with large numbers of people in their jobs face greater risk in the continuation and worsening of this pandemic than the risk of a rare adverse event that may surface in the coming months. These groups have been appropriately prioritized to get the vaccine in the first wave in the US. When a vaccine becomes available to the broader population and with the dynamic situation of the virus mutating and increasing numbers of vaccines becoming available, there may be continuing opportunities to evaluate the most beneficial and least harmful option. In the short term, we may have to take in products of society that exploits animals– in so many ways that byproducts of slaughter are cheap and use in science pales in comparison to the amount eaten– for our survival.

This post elaborates on the point that taking a COVID 19 vaccine may be morally excusable though not justifiable.

Below are links to two webinars that present views pertinent to vegan Jains.

Webinars with additional points for vegans and Jains

In the webinar below, from about 54 minutes to 1hour 10min several vegan doctors discuss animal testing in the vaccine with an extended ethical discussion grounded by the small numbers of animals tested as compared to the large number of lives saved. They didn’t even discuss the mink killed as an example of animals harmed by continuation of the pandemic. As a side note, I was surprised to hear their discussion of organic produce that follows, detailing the greater harm to animals because of the by-products used, compared to conventional produce. I am not sure that the harms to workers of pesticide application and to climate and soils has been adequately considered but it is an interesting discussion.

Another excellent webinar was in the UK discussing the COVID19 disease, various vaccines available and their health system’s approach. There are some differences between the UK, US and other countries in disease spread, health system functioning and vaccine roll out, and since information has changed so quickly, some aspects may not apply as time goes on, but it is instructive. They correctly note around 1:23 that the vaccine was tested on animals. They also note that the ingredients of mRNA vaccines are vegan, a point which is strictly true, but as referenced in the articles I linked above, the process involves culturing in cell lines and the media contain some animal byproducts. Still as I discuss above, I believe it makes sense to take the vaccine because of the greater benefits for us compared to harms to animals and risks to us as humans.

Towards a better way

We as Jains have not been at the forefront of developing alternatives to animal products in drug and vaccine development and to move the regulatory agencies and companies away from testing on animals. We can support the improvement in methods of systematic observation and interpretation of data which we call science, without condoning the view of animals as soul-less machines that are to be used as humans wish. Organs on a chip and other alternatives to animal testing have been discussed in recent UC Irvine webinars. The NY Times article on squalene mentions a CA based company and working on a synthetic alternative to shark derived squalene and organizations such as Center for Contemporary Sciences , Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine and PETA are working on supporting innovations in human based research and reforming the US regulatory system. Europe may be ahead in accepting alternatives to animals in research. If any reader is aware of the situation in India or other countries please comment.

Choosing a vegan diet, avoiding non-vegan clothing and entertainment and educating others to do the same helps us, as a human global community, move in the right direction. The more we move away from wet markets, encroachment on wild animals’ lands and slaughterhouses, the better our chances to prevent such outbreaks in the future. We can also support veganic agriculture to avoid environmental and worker harm from pesticides and animal harm from their byproducts being used in forming.

And if we as Jains consider ourselves to lead the world in our practice of ahimsa, we need to step out of our traditional comfort zone of home and temple as the locus of Jain practice. We need to apply our extraordinary professional and entrepreneurial success into development of ahimsak alternatives in all fields, including science.

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