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.

16 thoughts on “New Vegan Flu Vaccine arrives in UK”

  1. The vaccine may have gelatin in, as it turns out – I can’t post link to PDF as your site thinks I’m a spammer, but you can google “Inactivated influenza vaccine: information for healthcare practitioners” and find document with ref: “PHE publications gateway number 2019081”, look at p19.

    1. Hi! Thanks, what a great find. Yes it says “Although previous versions of this document stated that gelatin is used during the
      filtration process of QIVc and that it was possible that a residual amount of gelatin may be introduced into the vaccine at this time, the manufacturers have recently advised that gelatin is not added to the final vaccine product or used during the manufacture of Flucelvax Tetra18” so looks like it’s okay now! Thanks so much for your help!

  2. Thank you so much for this advice, and the copy of the NHS document. It has given me the leverage to try to argue for my GP surgery to supply me with the cell-based vaccine too. As someone who can’t afford to not have a flu vaccine, it’s a relief to find a more ethical option is available now. I’m already nervous that the delays in stocks of vaccines for under-65s reaching GP surgeries is going to lead to a lot more flu going around this year.

    1. Thank you frank! I had a great story that my Mother-in-law went to her GP to ask for “the vegan flu vaccine” and while she was in the appointment to receive it, the nurse double checked and used THIS VERY BLOG POST as a reference!

  3. Didn’t realise there was a vegan flu vaccine available. I just had the ‘normal ‘ one because I got so ill with flu in 2018, but I’ll look for this next year. Thanks for the post 👍😊

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, it’s amazing there is now a Vegan-ish option for people like us who really need the vaccine. It will still be tested on animals, but an animal ingredient free vaccine is certainly progress!

  4. I can’t understand how this vaccine can be labelled as vegan when it states that it’s made from the liver cells of a dog. Can somebody please explain?

    1. Hi, to be clear, it’s not labelled as Vegan, this is just a discussion about which vaccine is best for vegans. In my view it is, especially when you consider what the alternative is. In this vaccine, the cells used are reproduced from cells taken from a female spaniel 62 years ago. I can’t find any info on if the dog was killed or not (it may have been, but I am sure it was possible to harvest cells without killing the dog, so perhaps not!). No dogs have been killed since.

      Firstly, compare this to the normal vaccine, where every single vaccine made results in the destruction of chicken embryos, as a time when they are nearly ready to hatch too!

      Secondly, if we are to try and exclude “stuff” that is the product of animals that were killed or harmed long ago, we can’t live at all! No modern medicine is acceptable, as all were tested at some point. No household products or soaps – the rolling fixed cut off date used by many “leaping bunny” certified products is only 2013!! That means that a product can be certified non-tested if it was tested on animals in 2012 (https://www.crueltyfreeinternational.org/LeapingBunnyFAQs). We can’t eat food, as the land was worked by animals who surely suffered. Many old houses have plaster-work that contains animal hair, should we avoid these too? If you see my point.

      While it would be wonderful for vaccines to exist that have no relation to animal testing or ingredients, these do not exist right now. Having a vital vaccine that does not directly come from killed chickens is, I think, a wonderful victory for ethical medicine.

      1. I absolutely agree with you Mo.
        Just a few thoughts to mull over for those that do not quite get the vegan ethics.
        Whether the culture is grown from the cells of a dog kidney or liver, that creature had to be cut open to take it out.
        Who on earth holds a big enough supply of these organs to allow for a continuos vaccine supply?
        How would anyone know that this would work unless there were experiments?
        It is still an atrocity under any name no matter how long ago it was.
        Vegan NO.

        1. Again, just to reiterate – these cells were taken from ONE dog many decades ago. There is no “supply of organs” – no dogs are killed to make this vaccine. The cell line is kept alive in labs all round the world. I think this is a huge improvement on the existing vaccine, and has offered a ray of hope to medically vulnerable people such as myself.

  5. please help me understand chicken egg vaccine not good but dog liver vaccine is vegan ……. faulty thinking here considering dogs carry CORONA VIRUS

    1. Hi Debbie, please see my reply to Mo above. In short, there are no dogs harmed to make these vaccines: the last dog involved was 62 years ago. These liver cells are just cells that live “in a petri dish” – whether that is Vegan or not is up to you, however, it’s certainly much less abusive to animals than the egg based one where unborn chicks are killed to make every vaccine. I am personally very relived that this vaccine is available.

      About coronaviruses, you are right that dogs and cats and many other animals can get various types of coronaviruses – indeed we lost one of our cats to a type of coronavirus a few years ago, and our remaining cat is probably infected with the same virus. That virus is called FIP https://pets.webmd.com/cats/cat-fip-feline-infectious-peritonitis and is quite common in cats.

      However, this virus is not the same one as the coronavirus that causes covid-19, which has given us this pandemic. Coronaviruses (plural) are a type of virus that, when viewed in an electron microscope, look like the corona around the sun as its seen during an eclipse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stellar_corona. SARS and MERS were both coronaviruses that affect humans, but so is the common cold! There are very many types of coronaviruses out there. This one, covid19, is particularly dangerous.

      You can read about the group of viruses called coronaviruses here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronavirus

      Hope that helps!

  6. Dear Anna,
    Thank you for all your research on flu vaccines suitable for veggies. I now know what an uphill battle it is to find reliable well researched information. Despite being well over 65 I had never had a flu vaccine; however, following a nasty bout of flu last in 2019, I decided to investigate my options and your information was invaluable. Despite being armed with NHS docs detailing the suitability of QIVc it wasn’t a smooth path to getting a jab.
    My GP practice said they had the QIVc (Flucelvax Tetra) vaccine but when I arrived the nurse had the egg-based vaccine ready. Good job I checked! She apologised but said they didn’t stock the QIVc. I then showed the practice manager the NHS England & Public Health England docs I had copied that confirmed that QIVc would be reimbursed, but they were not able to help and suggested I try a private practice. After numerous calls & visiting local pharmacies, I eventually (in December 2019, which is a bit late!) got it at John Bell & Croydon (London).
    QIVc is on the The national flu immunisation programme 2020/21, so let’s hope it’s an easier process this year. Thank you again and keep well.
    Elizabeth M

    1. Hi Elizabeth – yes I had a very similar issue with my doctors, they had the egg based one ready despite me booking an appointment for the other one. Also similar story, I had always refused it till having a really bad flu episode which left me ill for many months. I am so glad this option came along when it did! My GP did eventually stock it, but I had to call twice and email once then call again. Also, my doctors surgery is relativity good and in a fairly wealthy area, I suspect they are better resourced than most. I did end up having it quite late though, it was already well into flu season. It’s best to ask early in the year I suppose. I will make sure to ask my GP surgery later this week! 🙂

      It looks like the coronavirus vaccines are mostly egg-free production also, which is a sign of how much better and quicker it is to work without live animals in medicine.

      Anyway, so glad I could help, it seems to have been really useful for a lot of people, always nice when the hard work goes to good use!! 🙂

  7. Thank you so much for all your hard work on this. I have avoided flu vaccination for ethical reasons as well as skepticism, but this year I have been persuaded that it is in the NHS’s (and my clients’) best interests to have the jab. So that left the ethical reasons. I know all medicines are tested on animals, and I also know many vaccines have an egg substrate. As soon as I started looking into it I found you’d already done a thorough job! It would be great if a truly vegan vaccine were to be developed, but I think scientists are a bit busy ATM! Whilst I find the dog liver cell vaccine distateful, I, like you, definitely prefer it to the egg culture as it uses cultured cells and saves so many lives.

    1. Glad to be of help! Let me know if you manage to get hold of it, my surgery is refusing me this year, so I’m trying to find access another way.

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