Given that the United Kingdom is the source of rather intensive activities by animal rights activists, you’d think the British public might be better informed about issues relating to animals. Of course you’d be wrong, as the BBC felt it had to actually run a story this week pointing out that vaccines are typically made using animal cells.
According to the BBC story, How vaccines are made, “many people would be surprised at the animal-based ingredients scientists must use to mass-produce vaccines.” Sad, very sad.
Anyway, aside from the “duh” aspect to the story, it is a pretty good summary of how vaccines go from laboratory to syringe. One of the things that the BBC points out is that often animal material is used rather than human material because scientists have a much better understanding of how to get the animal material to produce vaccine material.
The cells are bathed in a “soup” made up of those ingredients, and frequently include other organic chemicals such as growth factors, which can help the cells to develop.
Although human growth factors can be extracted, these do not provide as reliable results as other factors, such as foetal calf serum, which is widely used
Remember that the next time animal rights activists suggest that human cells and materials can totally replace animal culture. Sometimes they can, but in many cases they can’t.
The reason for the BBC interest, by the way, is fear that polio vaccine manufactured in the UK that used tissue from calf fetuses could potentially be contaminated with BSE. There are already strict controls to monitor cows used for this purpose to avoiding any viruses, and at the moment the risk remains very theoretical — the procedures involved in purifying the vaccines should destroy all of the proteins that would contain any BSE.
Even with the theoretical risk, polio vaccine made with animal products has been an amazing success. Cases of polio around the world have plummeted to less than 10,000 and the World Health Organization is currently engaged in a massive vaccination effort around the world that should eradicate the disease entirely by the year 2005.
Such a success would have been impossible if the animal rights activists had gotten their way and prevented the creation of animal models for polio (and polio was extremely animal testing intensive with upwards of 2 million non-human primates utilized by research institutes around the world in the drive for an effective, safe vaccine).
How vaccines are made. The BBC, October 20, 2000.