Is it vegan or not? A proposal to clearly label medications

April 22nd 2021
Allyson J. Bennett, Jeremy D. Bailoo, Justin Varholick

COVID-19 vaccines do not contain eggs or animal products, according to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS).  This bit of information appears on the NHS website along with responses to other frequently asked questions. The UK’s Kirlees Council has a graphic to match:

While the NHS vaccine specifies that no animal products are present in the vaccine, it does not address the broader context that animals were used in basic research as well as in safety and efficacy testing prior to its approval for use in humans. How could NHS make that clear? Perhaps a label like this:

Call for transparency in labeling

We propose here a new labeling system, one that accurately and transparently answers consumer questions. Unlike the NHS FAQ, which focused solely on whether animal products are present in a vaccine (see images above), we encourage transparency and openness that includes the many different points in the pipeline that lead to the production of new treatments. The advantage of our label is that it allows consumers to see where animals are used in the process of development of new knowledge, treatments, drugs, vaccines, and medical devices. As we and others have written many times, animal studies play many different roles in medical and scientific advances.

Focusing solely on whether animal products are contained in the final step fails to provide consumers with accurate and full information. 

What’s in our label?

We call for a new way of labeling medications and vaccines. The goal is to provide consumers with accurate and full information about the roles that animal research and testing have played in vaccines, medicines, treatments, and medical devices. For simplicity and full information, we propose a 4-point graphic that can indicate whether nonhuman animals contributed to: foundational knowledge, development, safety and efficacy testing, and product manufacture.  

Does anyone really want to know?

It isn’t just citizens of the UK who presumably want to know. From Australia, philosopher and lecturer Ben Bramble writes: “Are COVID vaccines vegan? Should I get one anyway? An ethicist explains.” Bramble shares: 

“Some of my vegan friends are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine.These vaccines do not contain animal products. Yet animals were used to develop and test them. For instance, early trials involved giving the vaccines to mice and macaque monkeys. So my friends say they feel uncomfortable having a product that uses animals in these ways. I am very sympathetic to their concerns. Animals are treated appallingly in the production of many goods and in many areas of life.” 

What does Bramble conclude to advise his vegan friends?  “Nevertheless, under current circumstances, our need to use animals to develop and test these vaccines is real. So, the correct path is not to reject COVID-19 vaccines. It’s to reluctantly accept them and lobby hard for better treatment of animals.”

A number of other articles have weighed in on the question of whether COVID vaccines are vegan.

Several anti-animal research groups have also put up information on the question.  PETA Australia says this: “Do the COVID-19 vaccines contain animal-derived ingredients? The vaccines that are likely to be available to Australians soonest – those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca – do not contain any animal-derived ingredients, though animal-derived materials may have been used in the production process. It is possible that future COVID-19 vaccines will contain animal-derived ingredients. An example of such an ingredient is shark squalene – an oil derived from the livers of sharks – which is sometimes added to make a vaccine better at stimulating an immune response. It should be possible to know whether a future vaccine contains animal-derived ingredients if and when it is approved for use, and at that point, it may be possible to opt for a vaccine that does not contain them on ethical grounds. Again, this is something you should discuss with your health-care provider.”

What will new labels achieve?

Quite simply, a way to provide people with information that they can use in their decision-making. It is unfair to leave consumers in the dark about the role animal research and testing have played in the development of new knowledge, new treatments, and new medicines that benefit humans and other animals. It is also shortsighted. Sound policy and decisions depend on informed and serious consideration of the full range of potential outcomes. Policymakers, drug companies, and others can help by providing the full picture. 

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2 thoughts on “Is it vegan or not? A proposal to clearly label medications

  1. To be more complete, you need 2 additional honeycombs:
    – Manufacturing process, eg use of bovine serum…
    – Quality control, eg animal testing (if any) or use of animal-derived antibodies.

    1. Good point! These could both fall broadly in the animal product and in animal research/testing areas, but it would be very useful to have a comprehensive and specific list of all of the different ways that animal products contribute to the development, manufacture, and testing process. If you would like to write more about that it would be useful to the conversation and help build understanding of the many different ways that animal products and animals themselves contribute to development of new medications and treatments.

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