New Vegan Flu Vaccine arrives in UK

The time of the traditional, egg based flu vaccine may be coming to an end, with new, more ethical alternatives available.

How is the Egg Based Vaccine Made?

Diagram of egg vaccine process. By Mouagip, in public domain

In the UK, flu vaccines up until this year were all made with eggs. The process uses fertilised chicken eggs at 11-12 days old – a chick would usually hatch at 21 days [1][2].

The egg is injected with the various virus strains specified by the World Health Organisation as being a threat that particular year. Then, it is left to develop for another 48 hours, incubated (and presumably the chick continues to grow). Over the 48 hours the virus is weakened or destroyed by the egg.

Then, the egg white, the albumen, is harvested and purified. It takes 3 chicken eggs for each vaccine. [3]

Should I have this eggy-vaccine?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. I have always said no, even though I am eligible because I have asthma. However, last year, I was so seriously ill with flu for so long that I said I would have it this year. I also put some effort into sorting out my asthma (review, new inhalers, dehumidifier and air purifier in the house etc) so the chance of me needing the vaccine was minimised.

I know others who have made the same decision, and others who have rejected it regardless. It doesn’t have to be the same choice every year, remember. If you are pregnant, or the primary earner in your family, or have a serious health problem – why to have it this year, and re-asses next time.

Thankfully, from this year, it’s going to be easier to get a vegan version of the vaccine! Read on for more info!

A Vegan Version?!

By Timisstuck - CC BY-SA 4.0
Madin-Darby Canine Kidney cells

There is another way of making vaccines though, using mammalian cells. In this case it’s the cells from a dog’s liver. But don’t worry, no dogs are harmed or killed in this process – liver cells divide easily. The Manufacturer of the new, more ethical vaccine said:

“Flucelvax Tetra is manufactured using influenza virus grown in Madin Darby Canine Kidney (MDCK) cells rather than embryonated hens’ eggs. MDCK cells are a continuous, laboratory maintained, cell line. Continuous cell lines originate from a natural tissue source, but have adapted to grow and divide “unendingly” under laboratory conditions and so have unlimited availability.”

Indeed this cell line has been alive since the cells were first taken from a spaniel in 1958! [4] It’s not clear what happened to the original dog, but I don’t believe it would necessarily have been harmed or killed for the extraction of liver cells alone.

About the New Vaccine

The new vegan vaccine is called Flucelvax Tetra. You can read about it’s availability on the NHS here: vaccines-for-19-20-seasonal-flu-vaccination-programme.

My local GP is so far saying it is not available, but I will keep you posted. The pharmacist says it’s possible to order it in, but not till October. You may have to ask repeatedly or make a full. You may have to pay. But this vaccine IS available in all of Europe from this year.

As far as I have been able to find, the vaccine is 100% Vegan in terms of ingredients, however, I am waiting for final clarification on this from the manufacturer about that. It’s not clear if the specific vaccine is tested on animals – I assume it will have been. The general process will also have been tested on animals at some point.

What did you do?

Good luck, and comment/reply to let us know how you got on!!

Updates

My surgery initially said they didn’t provide this vaccine and had never heard of it. I then sent an email [5, text below] which detailed the name of the vaccine and attached a document from the NHS commissioning saying the vaccine is available. I didn’t hear anything for a while, but then they called and said they will be getting these vaccines in around the 14th of October. I finally had the vaccine on the 16th of October. Initially bought out the eggy vaccine not the Vegan one, she had to go back and get the correct one. It really didn’t hurt at all, I didn’t really even feel the needle going in, it hurt a little bit immediately afterwards – but much less than eg a blood test or a paper cut!

What about other vaccines?

I recently thought to look at which other vaccines are Vegan or not Vegan, and found it quite a mix.

Actually, information is very hard to come by online. The best source was the New Zealand Immunisation Advisory Center who specifically made a document about religious and moral concerns about vaccine growth mediums. You can download it under the “Concerns and questions” section, it’s entitled Animal derived products and National Immunisation Schedule vaccines – updated August 2017 225.65 KB.

What this document shows is there is a huge variety of growth mediums used in the more day-to-day vaccines used to protect us from major disease. These seem to be different to the flu vaccine in that most of them don’t use egg.

The most concerning culture mediums for Vegans are probably the Cow/Pig derived serums which I used to feed the viruses as they grow. Some of these come from cows milk and some are a … really quite awful… byproduct of slaughter. Certainly not ideal for Vegans!

However, it’s worth considering that these cultures are taken from animals who will, sadly, die whether or not what we have the vaccine. They are a by-product, not an end-product. You’re not creating demand for beef steak by getting a vaccine, for example.

These cultures are (presumably) replaceable with less horrendous things, and if the market for the end-product dries up the by-products won’t be as readily available. So, as our societies reduce their meat and dairy consumption in order to try mitigate the climate catastrophe, and then these components of vaccines will become more expensive. Presumably at some point a replacement will be found, for vaccines and for the many other slaughter derived ingredients in everyday items (like car tyres and matches etc).

As with food and clothing, we need to keep up the pressure to change the system as a whole (and “accept the things we cannot change” while we wait).


References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken#Embryology

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influenza_vaccine#Manufacturing

[3] https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-we-grow-flu-vaccines-in-chicken-eggs

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madin-Darby_Canine_Kidney_cells#History

[5] Email text:

I appreciate that the nurses have said this egg free vaccine is not available, however, it is my understanding this is available on the NHS from 2019. It is a new vaccine, so perhaps it’s just a case of ordering it for the first time.

Please find attached some information from NHS England National Medical Direct. The vaccine is called Flucelvax® Tetra and the NHS seems to call it QIVc.
I understand if you won’t be able to offer this and will try and get it through a pharmacy in that case. However, please bear in mind it is the first time the flu vaccine will be suitable for those with egg allergies, particular religions beliefs and for many vegans too.
It is the first time I have personally felt able to have the vaccine.