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Religiously sensitive cow hits India's vaccine drive

The controversy began after the federal government said serum from calves is used in producing vaccines
Religiously sensitive cow hits India's vaccine drive
A health worker inoculates a man with a dose of the Covishield vaccine at a school used as a vaccination center in New Dehi on June 17. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP)
Published: June 17, 2021 09:39 AM GMT
Updated: June 17, 2021 10:00 AM GMT

India's vaccination drive against the fast-spreading Covid-19 pandemic has plunged into controversy after allegations that a vaccine was made using serum from cows, the holy animal of millions of Hindus.

The controversy began after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government disclosed that Covaxin developed by Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech used "newborn calf serum.”

The principal opposition Congress party said the vaccine was made after "slaughtering" calves and it was "heinous" that it happened in a country of 900 million Hindus.

"Covaxin consists of newborn calf serum ... which is a portion of clotted blood obtained from ... young cow calves after slaughtering them. This is heinous. This information should have been made public before," tweeted Gaurav Pandhi, national coordinator of social media for the Congress party.

The cow is a revered animal for most of India’s Hindus, who make up some 90 percent of the country's 1.2 billion people. Cow slaughter is banned in most Indian states. Of India’s 29 states, 24 have regulations prohibiting either the slaughter or sale of cows.

The federal government disclosed the information after details of the serum were sought through the Right to Information Act, a law that empowers citizens to seek information about the state’s actions.

Facts have been twisted and misrepresented in these posts [on social media]

The federal Health Ministry responded to the controversy by saying the Congress party had twisted facts.

"Facts have been twisted and misrepresented in these posts [on social media]. Newborn calf serum is used only for the preparation/growth of vero cells. Different kinds of bovine and other animal serum are standard enrichment ingredients used globally for vero cell growth,” said a ministry statement.

"Vero cells are used to establish cell lines that help in the production of vaccines. This technique has been used for decades in polio, rabies and influenza vaccines.” 

Some observers say the timing of the controversy aims to hit Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"The timing is important. State elections are due next year in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat,” two BJP strongholds, said Tushar Bhadra, a political observer who lives in Varanasi, Modi's parliamentary constituency in Uttar Pradesh.

“The issue could result in thousands hesitating to take the vaccine. This could suit the Congress party politically” as it could project the BJP supporting the slaughter of calves, said Bhadra.

India's vaccination drive has already been marred by political controversies.

In January, when formal clearance was given for the Covaxin and Covishield (AstraZeneca) vaccines, many feared they had not undergone adequate tests and trials.

Vocal Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said: "Approval [for Covaxin] was premature and could be dangerous."

India has so far given more than 260 million doses of three approved vaccines 

Putting the controversies to rest, Modi on March 1 took his first shot of Covaxin.

India has so far given more than 260 million doses of three approved vaccines — Covishield, Covaxin and Sputnik V from Russia.

A BJP leader on condition of anonymity told UCA News that Congress has deliberate political plans ahead of two important state elections.

The Congress party pursues pro-Muslim politics but experiments with soft-Hindutva politics to hoodwink Hindu voters, he said.

The BJP accuses Congress of appeasing India’s 200 million Muslims with its policies and statements but of speaking for the Hindu majority on sensitive issues.

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