Anti-Abortion Groups Say COVID-19 Vaccines May Use Cells From Human Fetuses

Catholic leaders and others who oppose abortions have raised concerns that potential COVID-19 vaccines are being developed using cells derived from aborted fetuses.

Decades-old fetal cell lines are already used to make a number of common vaccines, including against chickenpox, shingles, Hepatitis A and Rubella. A cell line is the term used to describe a culture of animal cells, in this case taken from fetuses, that can be cultivated repeatedly in a lab. The relatively common technique sees viruses grown in the cells, as the bugs aren't alive and need a host to replicate.

According to Dr. Paul Offit of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who was not involved in the protests, this results in vaccines created using this method containing residual or "very, small, small, small quantities of trace DNA" from the original fetuses.

It is this prospect that prompted chairmen of four U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees, as well as leaders of other anti-abortion organizations in the U.S., to write the U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Stephen Hahn in April. The signatories described the use of fetal cell lines as "ethically problematic," and asked Hahn "not only ensure that Americans will have access to a COVID vaccine that is free of ethical concerns, but to encourage and incentivize pharmaceutical companies to use only ethical cell lines or processes for producing vaccines." President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Health Secretary Alex Azar were cc'd in the letter. The request came after the Trump administration said it would ban the use of human fetal tissue in scientific and medical research by government scientists, in a decision one stem-cell biologist told Naturewould "set back research."

A separate letter to Canadian President Justin Trudeau from Catholic and anti-abortion organizations in that country echoed sentiments from their U.S. counterparts, and asked that he fund vaccines "that do not create an ethical dilemma for many Canadians."

According to Science, vaccines being developed by CanSino Biologics, Inc. and the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology; the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca; and the University of Pittsburgh are using the fetal kidney cell line HEK-293 for their research. The termination for the HEK-293 cell line took place in around 1972. Janssen Research & Development USA, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, is meanwhile using PER.c6, a retinal cell line from a fetus aborted in 1985.

The University of Pittsburgh is using the cell line to create the protein the coronavirus uses to bind to and invade cells. The other vaccines will use the cultures to grow harmless versions of viruses that will carry genetic material from the coronavirus in a bid to confer immunity.

The Janssen and University of Oxford vaccine candidates are both on the shortlist to be funded by the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed effort to fast-track development by January 2021.

Andrea Gambotto, who is leading the research at the University of Pittsburgh, told Science why these human cells are useful. "Cultured [nonhuman] animal cells can produce the same proteins, but they would be decorated with different sugar molecules, which—in the case of vaccines—runs the risk of failing to evoke a robust and specific immune response," he said.

The Vatican's Academy for Life issued a document in 2017 with regard to vaccines using fetal cell lines from the 1960s to make rubella, chickenpox, polio and hepatitis A vaccines. It stated that: "All clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion."

David Prentice, vice president and research director at the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, and associate scholar Dr. James Sherley wrote in a piece on the organization's website that regardless of their individual views, policymakers, healthcare officials, scientists, vaccine creators and funders should consider that the potential ethical dilemma may be a barrier for accessing the vaccine for some.

But Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at the NYU School of Medicine, told Science: "If you are going to say the government shouldn't fund things that a minority of people object to, you will have a very long list of things that won't get funded by the government, from research on weapons of war to contraceptive research."

Caplan also said: "There are better ways to win the abortion wars than telling people not to use a vaccine. These are long-over abortions. These cells are decades old, and even major religious leaders like the pope have acknowledged that for the greater good it's not worth the symbolism to put the community at risk."

As the graph by Statista below shows, the U.S. is the country with the most known COVID-19 cases.

Spread of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
Countries with most COVID-19 cases
U.S. states with highest COVID-19 cases.