Bharat Biotech’s vaccine against Covid-19 (Covaxin) has found itself in the midst of a fresh controversy, this time with political and religious overtones.

But the Hyderabad-based company and the Union Health Ministry acted quickly and put a lid on the controversy that erupted after a Congress worker tweeted, citing an RTI response, to say that the vaccine contained serum from a newborn calf.

Covaxin is highly purified to contain only the inactivated virus components by removing all other impurities, said Bharat Biotech and the Union Health Ministry in separate statements.

Use of calf serum

Newborn calf serum is used to manufacture viral vaccines, the company said, adding: “It is used for the growth of cells, but neither used in growth of SARS CoV2 virus nor in the final formulation.”

Bovine serum is being widely used in the manufacture of vaccines globally for several decades, said the company, adding that the usage of newborn calf serum had been transparently documented over the last nine months.

The Health Ministry further clarified that Covaxin did not contain newborn calf serum and, therefore, was not an ingredient of the final product vaccine at all.

The Ministry, too said new-born calf serum was used only for preparation or growth of vero cells and that it was a standard practice globally to use animal serum for vero cell growth. “Vero cells are used to establish cell lives, which help in production of vaccines. This technique has been used for decades in Polio, Rabies, and Influenza vaccines,” it added.

These vero cells, after growth, are washed with water and chemicals many times to make it free from the newborn calf serum, said the Ministry. And thereafter, they are infected with Coronavirus for viral growth, it explained.

“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,” it further added.

Vaccine hesitancy

Public health workers have constantly battled with such sentiments globally, as it could fuel vaccine hesitancy. In fact, other parts of the world have seen religious sentiments affect the adoption of other vaccines on apprehensions of pork-derived ingredients, among other things.

And while people have the right to know what they were putting into their body, it needs to be communicated in a more educative manner and not in a scare-mongering fashion, said a public health expert.

Meanwhile, the Congress has served a show-cause notice to Gaurav Pandhi, the coordinator of the party’s social-media platforms, for tweeting that Covaxin contained newborn calf serum.

Citing an RTI response, Pandhi had demanded the Centre to make information about the contents of the vaccine public.

“In an RTI response, the Modi Govt has admitted that Covaxin consists newborn calf Serum... which is a portion of clotted blood obtained from less than 20 days young cow-calves, after slaughtering them. This is heinous.

This information should have been made public before,” said Pandhi. A Congress leader told BusinessLine that they have asked Pandhi to explain his tweet. “We will see his response and take a decision,” said the leader.