As countries across the world amp up efforts to vaccinate their population against COVID-19, questions have cropped up about what exactly goes into these doses. Till date, many remain on the fence about getting inoculated, citing conspiracy theories - from imminent death to the presence of microchips in the doses. Others still have laid great emphasis on free will, propagating their right to remain un-jabbed. But a recent debate over the use of "newborn calf serum" goes beyond mere speculation.
Over the last day or so, numerous Twitter users have shared a screengrab of what appears to be an RTI request filed to determine whether the vaccines used any form of fetal bovine serum (FBS). According to the now viral screengrab, "new born calf serum is used in revival process of vero cells which is used for the production of coronavirus during the manufacturing of Covaxin bulk vaccine".
The news has created quite a flutter, with many railing against the company and the Indian government. There are however some discrepancies when one looks at the many rumours that are floating online. To begin with, there is no indication that fetal bovine serum is used in Covaxin. Rather, an animal study conducted by Bharat Biotech in 2020 indicates that it makes use of new born calf serum. The two are not the same.
According to an early study on the effects of Covaxin on rhesus macaques, the Vero CCL-81 cells were initially grown in tissue culture flasks and cell stacks using Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium containing 10% newborn calf serum (NBCS). According to listings by American chemical, life science and biotechnology company Sigma-Aldrich, Newborn Bovine Serum is collected from calves that are less than 10 days old.
"Although NBS is not as nutritionally rich as Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), it can serve as a cost-effective substitute for FBS in many applications," the website explains.
There is also no evidence to support other recent claims made regarding the use of aborted foetal tissue and the like in the jabs. India's second COVID-19 vaccine, Covishield reportedly does not make use of any animal products. According to quotes obtained by The Quint, "there is no pig or any other animal origin extract" that has been used by the Serum Institute of India.
Another point to note here is the ethical concerns associated with the use of FBS. "It is harvested from bovine fetuses taken from pregnant cows during slaughter. FBS is commonly harvested by means of a cardiac puncture without any form of anaesthesia. Fetuses are probably exposed to pain and/or discomfort, so the current practice of fetal blood harvesting is inhumane," sums up an article uploaded on the US National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
While Covishield and Covaxin may have avoided using it, FBS remains a popular ingredient in much of the research and work surrounding COVID-19 vaccines.