Last year, I wrote a guide to getting a vegan flu shot (in the US), covering the science, and some of the reasons why flu shots, and recombinant flu shots in particular, are a good idea.
The science hasn’t changed much since then, but vegan flu shots are a bit easier to find. This update covers getting FluBlok, the recombinant flu vaccine approved in the US, in 2015.
What is FluBlok?
FluBlok is a flu vaccine produced using recombinant genetic techniques to grow virus with coat proteins from the flu virus in cultured insect cells, instead of in chicken eggs. This produces a flu vaccine without animal ingredients, compared to conventional flu shots, which take about an egg per dose of vaccine to produce. The science is covered in a bit more detail last year’s guide.
FluBlok is approved in the US for adults over 18 years old. Only conventional flu shots are currently approved for children.
How to find FluBlok
Most major pharmacy chains (eg. Walgreens) still do not carry FluBlok. Here are some places you can find FluBlok this year:
Target Pharmacies – The biggest change from last year may be that Target pharmacies now carry FluBlok. No appointment necessary, but it may be wise to call ahead. I had no trouble getting a FluBlok flu shot at a Target Pharmacy, but they indicated that they only had a few doses left. They take insurance, otherwise the vaccine costs around $30.
Passport Health Clinics – Passport Health offers FluBlok by appointment, also for around $30. I got a FluBlok flu shot at Passport Health last year, and this is described in last year’s article. (SF residents: Passport Health has moved to Laurel Heights since last year.)
Some clinics and smaller pharmacies may carry FluBlok. You can use HealthMap Vaccine Finder to find pharmacies that carry FluBlok. I recommend calling and asking though, as some clinics that are marked as carrying it may be out of stock, and some data may be entered incorrectly. (For instance, Pharmaca in San Francisco is marked as carrying recombinant vaccines, but I’ve contacted them twice, and they explained that their supplier does not provide FluBlok, so they do not carry it.)
Asking for FluBlok
Even pharmacies that carry FluBlok may not know it by that name. If the pharmacy you contact hasn’t heard of Flublok, try asking for the “recombinant” or “egg-free” vaccine. If you’re not sure, you can always ask your pharmacist what the manufacturer of their vaccine options is.
You may be asked multiple times if you have an egg allergy, since that is the common reason for requesting FluBlok (or the “egg-free” flu shot, as it is often referred to). You can answer truthfully, even if they ask repeatedly. They are very likely simply trying to make sure you filled out the paperwork correctly, and that you did not misunderstand the form. They are probably not trying to pressure you out of that vaccine type, even if it may seem that way.
(I was asked if I ate eggs, “even in cookies”, and I informed them that I did not, but that it was not due to an allergy. That seemed to be sufficient.)
As far as I’m aware, anyone can request FluBlok. Most insurance plans will cover it regardless of egg allergy status, and it’s only around $30 if you pay for it yourself.
I’ve focused on FluBlok, since I think it’s an interesting technology, however Flucelvax is also a technology worth supporting. Flucelvax is another vaccine grown in vitro in cell cultures, rather than in eggs, for production. Flucelvax uses virus samples delivered from the CDC in chicken eggs, but does not use eggs in its manufacturing process, so the process has a tiny, but nonzero egg footprint.
Moving medicine forward
A lot of medicine is not entirely vegan. I do not recommend avoiding medicine, especially medicine with serious public health implications such as vaccines, regardless of animal product content. For instance, I recommend conventional flu shots when recombinant flu shots are not available (including for children, for whom alternatives are not yet approved).
However sometimes we have the opportunity to help push medicine forward — toward biotechnology and away from animal products. Flu shots are currently such an opportunity, and vegans should embrace and advocate for recombinant flu shots.
In addition to reducing animal use, these technologies could overcome weaknesses in the conventional egg-based process — vulnerability to changes in egg supply, long delay to ramp up production, slow response to virus mutation, inability to respond quickly to an outbreak, and losing vaccine efficacy in “reassortment” process that adapts the virus to growing in eggs.
Recombinant flu shots also demonstrate why I would like vegans to be open to biotechnology. Recombinant genetic techniques gave us insulin for diabetics without needing to take it from slaughtered animals. Current research projects may give us DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid not found in plants) in canola oil, B12 in plant foods, and even dairy made from yeast. Opposing biotechnology and delaying these projects could do real harm to animals.
One of the ways that we will reduce our use of animals is by using biotechnology to replace animal products in medicine and food. We should be open to this technology as a community, and should support biotech projects that reduce animal use.