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False Claims on COVID Vaccines Using Foetal Bovine Serum Go Viral

We found that the claims were misleading as none of the vaccines use FBS in them.

Published
Fit-WebQoof
5 min read
Fact-Check of Coronavirus Vaccine | Several social media users have falsely claimed that the vaccines for COVID-19 use FBS, pig fat and aborted male foetus in it.
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Several social media users have claimed that the vaccines for COVID-19 - Covishield and Covaxin - use Foetal Bovine Serum (FBS), pig fat and aborted male foetus in it.

We found that Covaxin uses blood serum from newborn cattle, which is not the same as FBS. Its ingredients do not mention the use of pig fat or aborted male foetus. We also found that the claim incorrectly identifies the cell line used in the Covishield vaccine and it does not “contain” aborted foetal tissue. Covishield vaccine does not contain any other animal products in it.

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CLAIM

One of the claims read in Hindi, “कोविशिल्ड वैक्सीन में मौजूद है:-
•फीटल बोवाइन सीरम (FBS) गाय के गर्भ मे पल रहे बाछा के ह्रदय के खून का सीरम
•सूअर की चर्बी से बना प्रोटीन (Polysorbate 80)
•सूअर के खून का प्लाज्मा (EDTA)
•मानव गर्भ से अबाॅर्ट किए बच्चे के अंग की कोशिका (HEK293)“

[Translation: Covishield vaccine contains the following:-
• Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS): The blood is taken from the heart of a calf in the womb of the cow.
• Protein made from pig fat (Polysorbate 80)
• Pig’s blood plasma (EDTA)
• Cell from the aborted human foetus (HEK293)]

An archive of the page can be found <a href="https://perma.cc/BMP8-EA28">here</a>.
An archive of the page can be found here.
(Source: Facebook/Screenshot)
An archive of the page can be found <a href="https://perma.cc/6QMY-ZTK7">here</a>.
An archive of the page can be found here.
(Source: Facebook/Screenshot)

Another claim pushed by Dr Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury also went viral earlier this month which detailed the process of extracting FBS. He repeats the claim that COVID-19 vaccine contains FBS. The claim was also found on his website.

An archive of the page can be found <a href="https://perma.cc/FC7S-WFNR">here</a>.
An archive of the page can be found here.
(Source: Facebook/Screenshot)
An archive of the page can be found <a href="https://archive.is/erQOp">here</a>.
An archive of the page can be found here.
(Source: Twitter/Screenshot)
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WHAT WE FOUND OUT

CLAIM 1: THE VACCINES USE FBS

We reached out to Serum Institute of India, the manufacturers of Covishield vaccine in India. A representative from the company said, “There is no pig or any other animal origin extract that has been used in our vaccines”.

A study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research and Bharat Biotech mentioned that one of the ingredients they used is blood serum from newborn cattle. The study goes on to describe the process by which the vaccine was developed. However, the study does not mention the use of FBS in producing the Covaxin vaccine.

One such claim was made by Dr Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury, who has spread several false and misleading claims on treating diabetes in the past and have been debunked by FIT. Last year, his claims about COVID-19 being an imaginary disease lead to major social media platforms blocking his official pages.

Screenshots of an article from The Print titled, “This is why blood from newborn cattle is being used to develop Indian Covid vaccine” were also shared with misleading claims. The article mentions that Covaxin uses blood serum from newborn cattle and not FBS.

WHAT IS FBS?

Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) is an ingredient that is sometimes used in cell-culture. According to Health Desk, a COVID-19 resource for journalists powered by public health experts, “In order to grow cells in laboratory settings for vaccine research, serum from calf or fetal blood is sometimes used. It helps cells grow and replicate so they can be studied.”

FBS provides all the necessary nutrients for a cell to grow outside of an animal. Its successful application in cell culture led to widespread use in drug and vaccine manufacturing. FBS is obtained from fetal cows and the process of obtaining it, as described in the viral claim, is correct.

The process of obtaining FBS has raised eyebrows for a while now. The Print article also talks about how ethical concerns and cruelty of the process lead to “scientists shifting to the use of serum from newborn calves. In this case, blood is collected from the calf within three to 10 days of its birth”.

We’ve reached out to Bharat Biotech as well as ICMR for clarification on whether calf serum is used in the vaccine itself, or just in the vaccine’s development process. This story will be updated with their comment as and when we receive a response.

We found that the claims were misleading as none of the vaccines use FBS in them.
We found that the claims were misleading as none of the vaccines use FBS in them.
(Photo: Altered by FIT)
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CLAIM 2: THE VACCINES USE PIG PRODUCTS

This claim was previously viral when Muslim organisations called for increased transparency in the vaccine manufacturing process because of the rumour that vaccines will contain pig fat as a stabiliser.

According to Health Desk, “Gelatin from pork and cow products is often used in vaccines to stabilize the drug’s ingredients and ensure they remain effective through the distribution process.”

However, we studied the ingredients in the vaccine candidates that have been approved in India - Covishield (AstraZeneca) and the Covaxin and found that neither of them uses pig fat in the vaccine.

CLAIM 3: COVISHIELD VACCINE CONTAINS ABORTED MALE FOETUS

This claim was also bunked by FIT WebQoof last year when the video of a woman talking about the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine went viral. The woman stated that the vaccine contains lung tissue from an aborted male foetus.

We reached out to the manufacturers of the vaccine and found that the video incorrectly identifies the cell line used in the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. We also found that the claim that the vaccine “contains” aborted foetal tissue is false.

A spokesperson for the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine team told The Quint that the vaccine is “manufactured using a producer cell line, Human Embryonic Kidney 293 TREX cells”, not MRC-5 cell line as claimed in the video.

HEK-293 is the name given to a specific line of cells used in various scientific applications. The original cells were taken from the kidney of an aborted foetus in 1973. HEK 293 cells used nowadays are clones of those original cells, but are not themselves the cells of aborted babies,” the statement added.

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(Not convinced of a post or information you came across online and want it verified? Send us the details on WhatsApp at 9643651818, or e-mail it to us at webqoof@thequint.com and we'll fact-check it for you. You can also read all our fact-checked stories here.)

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