Should ethical vegans get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Jordi Casamitjana looks into the ethicacy of vegans getting the Coronavirus vaccine

Should ethical vegans get the Covid-19 vaccine? This is going to be the key vegan question of 2021 and beyond.

As a long-term vegan and author of the book Ethical Vegan, other people who share my philosophical belief often ask me whether they should get the COVID-19 vaccine, as many find themselves stuck in a dilemma when trying to decide. It is not up to me to advise anyone on this matter (I am not a doctor or a public health expert) and I believe this really must be each person’s decision (which is also the official position of the Vegan Society). Besides, people can get stigmatised by either having had the vaccine or not, so we should be careful when we ask this question to others, and, as with any medical issue, we should respect confidentiality and avoid pressuring anyone to reveal what decision they made. Above all, we should never judge other vegans for having decided differently than us, as this is indeed one of the ‘grey areas’ of veganism and there is not an obvious choice.

Time to decide

As someone who has been in the spotlight, you may wonder whether I may get the vaccine, though. In my book, I mentioned that I had not made my mind yet as I wanted to carefully consider all issues and I preferred to wait until I was asked to choose. Well, I have now. I recently received the letter from the NHS offering me the vaccine, as the vaccination programme for my age cohort started, and I have finally decided. I thought it may be helpful to others if I spelt out which sort of things I considered when doing so.

Firstly, I had to step back and look at whether vaccines work. I am a scientist so I have the advantage that I can easily understand the scientific papers on this issue, so I can indeed have an informed opinion about this. I am certainly not an anti-vaxxer so I don’t hold a belief which answers this question without the need to check credible evidence. I also don’t suffer any sort of conspiracy ideation, so I am not under the illusion that the pandemic doesn’t exist or is not as severe as it appears to be, or that vaccines are anything more than what the NHS and the medical profession tell us they are.

As I am sure that, in general, vaccines do indeed work as a form of preventive medicine and as a method to stop epidemics, and are less likely to cause serious side effects than many drugs that are taken regularly for a long time (not just because vaccination normally only involves a couple of doses, but because it uses natural immunological processes to combat the infection), the next question would be whether they are suitable for vegans.

Are vaccines vegan?

Considering the definition of veganism of the Vegan Society (which is the one I follow as an ethical vegan) vegans should exclude all forms of animal exploitation. The use of animals in the testing of medicines, or in creating their ingredients, is a type of animal exploitation. As some vaccines contain animal products, or animal components were used in the manufacturing process, these would make them non-vegan-friendly. Equally, as most vaccines have been tested on animals, this would also make them not suitable for vegans. However, theoretically, it is perfectly possible to develop an effective vaccine without animal products or without testing them on animals. Are any of the current COVID-19 vaccines like this? I know there are quite a few of them that don’t have any animal products, but I believe that all of them have indeed been tested on animals, as this is currently a legal requirement in most jurisdictions (although there are plenty of initiatives aiming to find alternatives to these tests, as the work done by Animal Free Research UK).

However, the definition of the Vegan Society also adds this caveat: ‘as far as practicable and possible’. That means vegans would not fail to adhere to the philosophy by consuming a product or service they need if there is no vegan alternative, or if there is one but it would be very impractical to use instead (and impracticable does not just mean inconvenient, but requiring an extraordinary effort, such as breaking the law, paying a prohibited price, or needing to travel very far to get it). Most modern medical procedures, treatments, drugs and medicines can easily fall into this category.

Modern medicine

I asked myself if I have previously rejected medical treatment if it was created with animal experimentation – and I did not – or medicines if they have been tested on animals (or I may likely do so in the future). As the entire modern standard medical profession is based on animal experimentation or vivisection, some vegans could argue we should never go to a doctor or be treated by anyone that has been medically trained. I am not one of them, and I certainly would strongly advise against this view. I would not want to encourage anyone to put their health at risk by boycotting medicines, and this is also the position of most vegan organisations I know, such as Animal Aid.

Then, I asked myself what the difference is between accepting that treatment and accepting now the vaccine.  Some of the treatment or medicines I might have had in the past only helped me, while the purpose of vaccines is to help others too by preventing the spread of infections. Which of the two is more compatible with veganism? If veganism is based on choosing the alternatives which will do less harm to other sentient beings (and an ethical vegan should be anti-speciesist, and therefore should not discriminate sentient beings because of their species, including the species Homo sapiens), which choice is the most vegan compatible, that one which tries to help only you, or that one that tries to help you and many others, like vaccines?

Other Animals

Those who generally don’t care about humans should ask whether non-human animals can get COVID-19 too. The answer is yes, as thousands of mink were culled in 2020 because they had it. There are also reports on cats getting infected. What if I do not get the vaccine, get the disease, infect another person, who infects another, which in the end infects another population of animals that, because of this, end up being culled? A utilitarian vegan may evaluate the numbers affected in either case and choose the option with fewer sentient beings harmed, but the problem is that you cannot know how many humans or other animals may be infected in the end if you contract the disease and infect others who in turn infect others. These are hypotheticals difficult to guess.

Then, I asked myself how many people or animals I will be helping by rejecting a vaccine that has already been developed, tested and is already being distributed. A vaccine that I am not purchasing, so my money is not going to directly support vivisection by just getting it. A vaccine that was tested on animals but may not contain animal products in it. A vaccine that was tested very quickly and might have involved fewer animal tests than other medicines I may have already taken (or I will have to take if I fall ill in the future).

Consequences of not getting vaccinated

Deliberately increasing my risk of getting infected and infecting others may lead to vegans be infected too (as I may more likely be in contact with other vegans), and if I infect them their ability to help animals and help others to become vegan then may be severely depleted. Taking this to the extreme, I imagined a hypothetical scenario where only vegans reject vaccination, and because of this, only vegans get ill (and the relative number of vegans decline). In such a hypothetical case, vaccinating vegans would be the ‘vegan thing to do’ as the alternative may lead to the depletion of those holding the belief in veganism (so more animals would be exploited after that).

I also wondered whether by rejecting the vaccine I will be helping or hindering the work done by the health service of the area I live in. Whether I would be helping my local community to prosper or to struggle, and whether vegans may be blame for any delay in preventing further infections. I considered whether the vegan world would be more difficult to achieve if veganism becomes less mainstream because it is believed the vegan community hindered the collective effort to stop the pandemic. Also, I considered whether I should change my behaviour if I rejected the vaccine (such as self-isolate from other people and animals to protect them while the pandemic continues, or always wear a mask everywhere). And if I get vaccinated, one thing I could do is increasing my support to animal-free research and anti-vivisection campaigning.

Which vaccine?

If I chose to get the vaccine, the next question would be which one. Each vaccine is different, and all those that have been rigorously tested and approved by the authorities have a different degree of efficacy (no vaccine is 100 per cent effective, but those approve have an acceptable percentage of effectiveness), and a different way to work. The vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Moderna were approved for use in the UK and the first two have already been injected into many millions of people so they appear to be safe enough. They do not contain any animal-derived ingredients, but animal-derived materials may have been used in the production process, and they were tested on animals such as mice and macaques.

Which one would be the best for me? This doesn’t matter because the decision of which one can I get was already made by my local health provider. Depending on the country, location and date, there may only be one type of COVID-19 offered to each person.

Long-term implications

I also thought about what would happen if many people decided to reject the vaccine? What if it is the majority? In such a case, the vaccine would fail to stop the pandemic. And if we fail to stop it now, how many more animals will need to be tested for the next treatment or medical solution that scientist would try to develop to stop it? I considered what would be the effect on both human and non-human animals to allow zoonotic diseases like COVID (which affect both) to spread, mutate and cause disease and death, directly or indirectly (such as by crippling a health system or creating economic hardship) and whether those less privileged than I are more likely to suffer more.

Having failed so far to prevent zoonotic pandemics to appear in the first place by still allowing animal markets, wildlife trade and factory farming, how important it is now to try to stop those already spreading pandemics as quickly as possible? How many animal tests could be avoided by stopping epidemics before the viruses mutate and create a new pandemic?  If a vaccination programme could indeed achieve that, what should we all do to ensure that it does? Would getting most of the population vaccinated be part of this? Besides campaigning to stop the emergence of zoonotic diseases, which other messages we ethical vegans should send to help on this endeavour?

In the end, it must be each vegan’s private decision, but I think we all need to consider all sentient beings that could be helped, not only those unfortunates that were already used during the development of the vaccines. We should think of the likely consequences of our choices not just for us, but for our fellow vegans, and the community at large.

After all this careful reasoning using the available evidence, I made my mind and acted accordingly. As ethical vegans, this is the only thing we are expected to do.

I am now waiting for my second dose.

Jordi Casamitjana

Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author of ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.