Svetambar sadhu Padmasagar Maharaj talks to the community about the blood and pus consumed in drinking milk and encourages his followers to give up milk, too. He reminds them that mung beans and other legumes are very nutritious and a staple of the Jain diet.
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.
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). No doubt there is animal suffering in these steps of vaccine development and ideally we would have alternatives. A supplier of FBS acknowledges that alternatives should be developed but so far are not adequate
Regulators require vaccines and drugs to be tested on animals.
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 reinfect 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. 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. He 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 were discussed in a recent UC Irvine webinar. The NYTimes 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.
Dr. Brianne Donaldson, scholar of Jainism, recently wrote an article about the cultural blindness of our response to slaughterhouse workers. In the Covid19 pandemic, the mental health of farmers was deemed worthy to support. However, “essential” slaughterhouse workers are traumatized every day.
As she says, ” If killing animals is this traumatic, why have anyone do it? Far from “essential” business, slaughterhouse work destroys animals and corrodes the well-being of people. Since nearly all humans living in the industrialized world can live well and healthy without animal flesh, the time has come to transition away from a practice widely acknowledged to be a source of personal trauma and social harm.”
She also gave an engaging 40 minute interview the role of animal agriculture in the Covid19 pandemic.
As Dr. Donaldson describes, it is often immigrants and refugees that work in slaughterhouses. Back when I worked on refugee health, I, too found that the resettlement agencies in NC had placed the refugees from Asia into slaughterhouse jobs.
Dr. Nandita Shah from Sharan gives a great introduction to veganism in this video
and this NYT article discusses the increased risk of heart disease in South Asian, linked both to those that eat a very traditional diet with lots of refined grains and saturated fat, and also a too Western diet with high fat meat and dairy. The type of whole foods, plant based diet that I, and Dr. Nandita and other vegan nutritionists and doctors recommend fit the recommendations to incorporate whole grains, vegetables and legumes into a mixed diet.
Working collaboratively with the help of the Jain Society of Toronto (JSOT), the non-profit group Towards Ahimsa Inc. (based out of Toronto, Canada) co-hosted a special event last month to celebrate the health and wellbeing of a plant based diet.Through a series of interactive activities and thought-provoking discussions a group of 70 senior community members learnt first hand the philosophical definition of ahimsa in Jainism in its relationship to diet.
Presenters included medical doctors & professional educators who started by defining the nature of a Plant Based or Vegan diet. They presented medical evidence regarding benefits to vascular disease, cancers, diabetes, blood pressure, weight control, and overall benefits to quality-of-life and mortality. They also discussed ways to optimize the vegan diet and how to easily obtain nutrients like vitamin B12, calcium and iron, and protein.
The talk was extremely well received with great questions and enthusiasm on the part of the seniors. One attendee even claimed she would become vegan from this point forward!
JAINA Education Leader Pravin Shah was recorded this week while in London, where he was invited to give talks for Paryushan. Here we have two talks in English and one in Gujarati on his personal decision to become vegan after visiting a dairy farm and discusses the decrease in his cholesterol that resulted. He also sicusses the philosophical basis for veganism in Jain philosophy and practice. One is “parapagraho jivanam“, all life is interdependent, and the other enjoins the practitioner to consume only those items known to him or her to be ahimsak. Thanks to Minal, Mahersh, Nishma, and Sagar from the JAIN vegans UK for producing these recordings!
Based on the combined work of 15 Jain Center of Greater Boston volunteers and his own personal stories, Sanjay provides a compelling case for Jains to become vegan as the true expression of vegetarianism based on ahimsa.
Here are some recent videos in which I discuss how i became vegan and address concerns with Calcium, Protein and B12. My story is similar to other doctors raised in Jain families who have come to learn and now incorporate into our practices how healthy a vegan diet is. It is especially beneficial for those of us who are vegetarian Indians that have a high risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and strokes due to our genetics to take the next step of eliminating dairy foods.