The COVID vaccine is presenting a moral conundrum to some vegans.
All of the vaccines approved for use in the UK – Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna – have been tested on animals, but none contain ingredients that have come from animals.
Despite high profile vegan organisations urging people to get the vaccine, while maintaining their criticism of animal testing – some vegans are not convinced, with discussion about whether to take the vaccine happening on vegan Facebook groups.
Alex, a personal trainer from Prenton, a suburb of Birkenhead in north west England, won’t be getting vaccinated from COVID-19 because he “doesn’t use any products that are tested on animals.”
“If we decide to get it then the next vaccine will also be tested on animals because people didn't seem to care last time – why would they next time?” said Alex, who asked to be identified by his first name only in order to preserve his anonymity.
Alex accepts that not all vegans agree with him, with some vegans telling him that “you can’t advocate for veganism if you’re dead.”
Despite successful vaccination rollouts in countries such as Israel, the UK, the US and Bahrain, vaccine reluctance, as well as vaccine inequality, is still a huge issue. Ethnic minority communities in particular show high levels of reluctance because of health inequalities and the sway of anti-vaxxers on social media.
Alex says he doesn’t consider himself as an anti-vaxxer “at all”. He understands the importance of vaccines, and has had an aunt and uncle catch the virus. “I think that we do need to create vaccines to prevent pandemics,” he says. “However, testing on animals seems completely outdated as a way of creating and testing vaccines.”
Animal testing is still a cornerstone of medical research – and played a key role in developing the COVID-19 vaccine.
The UK has strict laws which safeguard new medicines and treatments before they move onto the human clinical trials – testing on animals is a requirement, unless it can be avoided.
Dr Maya Shahsavari is a vegan and surgeon based in Dundee who has had both of her COVID-19 jabs. Despite the involvement of animal testing, something that she “struggled with greatly when making the decision to take the vaccine,” she did decide to take it to protect herself, her patients and the wider community. “It is a difficult decision for most people but as all decisions go in life, you must weigh up the consequences of your choice,” she says over email. “Sometimes it is necessary to take actions that may not directly be in alignment with your personal beliefs, but will protect vulnerable people and change or save lives.”
However, she believes that choice is a “sacred weapon” which people should use wisely. “I deeply respect their decision to stand by their values. However, whether you choose to take the vaccine or not, it is vital to take time and consider your reasoning. Catching COVID may not end your life but passing it on to a vulnerable individual will end theirs,” she said.
“I would say though, that what makes my viewpoint unique is the devastation of COVID that I’ve experienced as a frontline doctor. Witnessing loss and chaos in the most horrific way has a way of making you shift your perspective and see another angle.”
Vegan organisations have encouraged people to take the vaccine, while maintaining their criticisms of animal testing. PETA – People for Ethical Treatment of Animals – says: “As long as tests on animals are a legal requirement, refusing to get a COVID-19 jab on ethical grounds would neither help the mice, hamsters, and monkeys who have already been used in tests nor spare any the same fate in the future.”
A statement from the UK based Vegan Society says that the definition of veganism, “recognises that it is not always possible or practicable for vegans to avoid participating in animal use, which is particularly relevant to medical situations.”
However it adds that in workplaces where vaccination is mandatory, “Vegans who do not wish to be vaccinated must be given due regard and may seek protection under the Equality Act 2010.” The society “encourages vegans to look after their health and that of others, in order to continue to be effective advocates for veganism and other animals.”
For some vegans, there are other factors to be considered. Cheryl Muir, a relationship expert based in the Lake District says, “It’s true that the pharmaceutical industry is incredibly cruel to animals, though that’s not my primary decision driver.” Instead, she cites ethical issues with “pharmaceutical industries as a whole” as a reason not to take the vaccine. She believes that the industry “profits from people’s sickness.”
Muir, who has had close family members suffer from COVID, is adamant that she has a right to refuse the vaccine. “Personal choice is a fundamental pillar of our democracy. We must keep it intact.”
For Cerys Turner, 20-year old university student from Leamington Spa, “understanding the exceptional circumstances” for use of animal testing was a key factor in taking up the COVID-19 vaccine, which for her is the “only realistic way” of getting back to normal.
“I think [taking the vaccine] is important – we need the majority of people to take it or else it won’t be effective. It’s everyone’s duty to be involved,” she says. “In such a rush to find a vaccine, I knew that scientists would seek the cheapest and most-researched way option possible to conduct trials, which is currently animal testing. Personally, I don’t like the fact that I’m taking something that was created out of other beings’ suffering but I understand the circumstances.”
“The damage is already done – animals have already been tested on, the vaccine trials are completed,” she says. “Unfortunately, a minority opting not to take the vaccine isn’t going to change [anything.] There are many different ways to protest animal testing – not taking the vaccine is the most dangerous, and probably the most ineffective method possible.”