Vaccines, Animals and COVID-19


Vaccines, Animals and COVID-19

This is one of a series of Animal Research Nexus blogs drawing on our current and past work to explore the human-animal and science-society entanglements in the Covid-19 pandemic. You can explore more using the tag #coronavirusconnections on our website and twitter.

In those much missed pre-coronovirus days when we could travel to conferences, I always enjoyed first conversations with new colleagues. These exchanges would often begin with; ‘So, how did you get into the whole animals topic?’. This question sounds simple, but often seemed to carry a lot of ethical weight when it occurred, as it often did, just next to the buffet table. In my experience, social science and humanities scholars tend to have varied explanations of how they ended up studying animals.  

My own ‘Eureka moment’ occurred during my PhD almost twenty years ago, when I started researching organised resistance to vaccination policy. The dominant media and academic narrative at the time was all about risk, and the assumption that parents were worried about the risks of vaccine side effects. However, whilst interviewing activists I discovered those who were critical of all vaccines, not because of fears about risk, but because they fundamentally disagreed with the use of laboratory animals in the production and testing of medicine. This got me interested in the idea of ‘spillover’ , where ideas from one social movement can spread to another.  

In Covid times, the topic of vaccination is once again front and centre. Whilst the dominant media narrative is about the race to develop an effective vaccine, other voices are also expressing concern as to whether so-called ‘anti-vax’ sentiment may impact on uptake. Critics are also questioning the need for laboratory animal models, given the claim that some stages of animal research have been bypassed in the urgency to develop a Covid vaccine. 

In response to the pandemic, the University of Nottingham is running free online adult education workshops and on 26th May 2020 I ran an evening session on vaccination. Participants raised some really insightful questions, about the relationship between attitudes to childhood, pet and Covid-19 vaccines. What generated surprising interest, however, was my brief comment about the origin of the term vaccine – vacca as latin for cow. This dates back to Edward Jenner’s classic experiment, which involved inoculating an 8 year old boy with cow pox legions to protect against smallpox. 

Much scientific and social scientific work will and should be done on the origins of Covid-19, and the ways in which human treatment of animals may be implicated. But the Jenner example nicely reminds us of the need to continue to study the historical and contemporary entanglement of humans and animals in the production of medicine, as well as in the production of disease.  

Banner Image credit: Edward Jenner among patients in the Smallpox and InoculationColoured etching after J. Gillray, 1802. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


In Covid times, the topic of vaccination is once again front and centre
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