Multiple possible coronavirus vaccines that are on a fast track for development as the world awaits a vaccine to deal with the international pandemic. But one of the COVID-19 vaccines that is receiving the most attention is also the most controversial because it relies on cells from the body part of an aborted baby.
Despite a strong outcry from pro-life and Catholic leaders and despite ethical alternatives being available, a number of research teams still are using the cells from aborted babies in their work. These include Janssen Research & Development USA, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, and the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, which could be the first to make a coronavirus vaccine available in the United States.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca team appears to be in first place in the vaccine race and doses of the vaccine were given to 1,077 healthy adults aged between 18 and 55 in five UK hospitals in April and May as part of phase one of the clinical trial. A new paper published in The Lancet medical journal revealed the vaccine appears safe and induces a strong immune response following the first phase of human trials. It also appears to be helping the human body make antibodies by the body’s B cells, which is very helpful in staving off the virus in the future.
But the vaccine is not without ethical concerns.
The team at Oxford University is developing the vaccine using the HEK 293 cell-line. This cell-line was originally created from tissue taken from the kidney of an unborn child probably aborted in 1972.
Dr Anthony McCarty, a pro-life physician in the UK, spoke out about the moral concerns.
“For those of us who see the original abortion as the unjustified taking of the life of the unborn child, such use of the products of abortion, even a cell line derived from the original tissue, risks sending out a harmful social message concerning the value of early human life,” he said.
Dr McCarthy added: “Even those not opposed to all abortion may well have serious and substantial moral concerns over practices which seem to treat opportunistically the remains of an aborted unborn child. Society needs to respect the consciences of its members who uphold the inviolability of human life from conception and who do not wish to be involved in anything they may see as complicit with the unjust taking of such life.”
In April 2020 the British pro-life group SPUC wrote a letter to Jo Churchill the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care), requesting that the Government make available vaccines which are not made using cell lines originally derived from the tissue of aborted unborn children.
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Some vaccines are being developed without the use of foetal cell lines. These vaccines may involve plant or animal cells. For example: cells from insects, tobacco plants and hamster ovaries. A team at Imperial College London is working on a ‘synthetic’ vaccine i.e. a ‘cell-free’ method. There are no pro-life concerns with these vaccines.
Other researchers also using cell lines from aborted babies include CanSino Biologics, Inc. and the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology and the University of Pittsburgh, Science reports. Some are using a cell line from a baby who was aborted sometime around 1972, while others are using one from a baby who was aborted in 1985.
University of Pittsburgh researcher Andrea Gambotto said the cell lines from aborted babies are more useful than ethically-derived sources.
“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,” Gambotto said.
But other scientists disagree. Earlier this year, the Charlotte Lozier Institute identified 60 potential treatments for the virus that are being investigated using materials that do not come from aborted babies.
Respected researchers Drs. James L. Sherley, MD, PhD and David A. Prentice, PhD recently reviewed the vaccines in development for the coronavirus and published a list identifying which are being made ethically and unethically. They found at least 10 companies that are not using cell lines from aborted babies in their vaccines.
Pro-life leaders also have highlighted how ethical alternatives to cell lines from aborted babies are available, including pluripotent stem cells and tissue from placentas, umbilical cords and amniotic fluid. In 2018, the Trump administration created a $20 million grant to invest in these ethical research alternatives.
Catholic and pro-life organizations have been advocating against research using aborted baby body parts for years. During the coronavirus crisis, they have renewed calls to scientists to abide by basic ethical standards in their efforts to save lives.
According to the Catholic News Agency, a Canadian Catholic archbishop recently took his pro-life advocacy a step further by donating thousands of dollars to an ethical vaccine research project at the University of British Columbia.
Earlier this spring, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure vaccines are being produced ethically.
“… we think it’s very important at this moment to let the voice not only of the Church but other concerned citizens to voice that we want to—we all want a vaccine, we realize that’s important for our public health, but we also want a vaccine that has no ethical problems in the way it’s developed,” said Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, earlier this spring.