By Dennis Sadowski Catholic News Service
CLEVELAND (CNS) — Use of the coronavirus vaccines currently being administered nationwide has sparked questions about how the medicines are manufactured and the ongoing testing underway to assure their effectiveness.
The questions revolve around whether already widely used cell lines originally developed decades ago from tissue of aborted fetuses are used in manufacturing and testing processes.
Catholic medical professionals and ethicists have become involved in discussions surrounding the vaccines, offering insight based on their understanding of the moral teaching of the church.
Questions about ongoing testing of newly manufactured vaccines have been raised by Children of God for Life, a Tyler, Texas-based organization working to end the use of tissue from aborted children in scientific research and manufacturing.
The organization wondered about the possible use of one cell line, known as HEK293, in quality control testing of new lots of mRNA vaccines — the kind produced by Modena and Pfizer.
Such mRNA vaccines function differently than traditional vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains on its website that traditional vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into bodies to help a person’s immune system develop antibodies.
The mRNA vaccines work differently. They teach cells how to produce a protein or a piece of a protein that triggers the body’s immune response to produce antibodies. Those antibodies protect someone from becoming seriously infected if a real virus enters the body.
In a March 4 article on the Children of God for Life’s website, Stacy Trasancos reported on findings involving one vaccine, from Moderna. She said correspondence from the pharmaceutical firm to a North Dakota Department of Health official explained that it “does not use fetal cell lines during the vaccine manufacturing or LOT testing process.”
Moderna’s explanation was shared with Children of God for Life by Dr. Paul Carlson, director of the Center for Immunization Research and Education at North Dakota State University and a member of the Catholic Medical Association.
Carlson is working with the North Dakota Department of Health to develop a fact sheet on the use of the fetal cell lines related to vaccine development. He asked Moderna and Pfizer about their processes. Pfizer “has not yet provided a clear response,” according to the Children of God for Life post.
Questions surrounding the vaccines garnered the interest of Melissa Moschella, who teaches bioethics as an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America. She has written and spoken about the HEK293 cell line and the ethics of using the coronavirus vaccines several times in recent months.
Moschella told Catholic News Service March 9 that she believes the HEK293 cell line’s connection to abortion is “very, very, very remote.” She said Catholics can feel secure in knowing that by accepting any of the vaccines they are not complicit in abortion.
“In a way the issue isn’t even abortion directly, which people forget about … but this is only about abortion three or four steps removed. It’s not like these abortions that these vaccines are remotely tied to were actually sought for the sake of research,” she said.
“We’re dealing with a cell line as opposed to direct fetal parts in the vaccine,” she added.
The same can be said for testing, Moschella said.
“It’s so remote already, several steps removed from the original abortion, which is our primary concern, that there’s really no reason to be seriously worried about it,” Moschella said.
“There’s not a nefarious motive involved in the choice to use this particular cell line (HEK293),” she said. “It’s simply the most adequate cell line for scientific purposes.”
The HEK293 cell line is named for the human embryonic kidney cells originally obtained from an unborn child that was aborted in the 1970s in the Netherlands. The name also derives from it being the 293rd line developed by scientists.
Moschella said she finds the “real ethical issue” to be that the HEK293 cell line and another known as PER.C6 used in developing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were derived from tissues of aborted fetuses “without proper concern” in caring for the fetal remains.
The PER.C6 cell line was derived from human embryonic retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. Like HEK293, it has been developed and prepared as a cell line that is widely used today in scientific research.
Moschella noted the concerns being raised about the use of HEK293 cells in research that led to the vaccines overlook how the same cell line is used in widely available pharmaceutical and personal care products and innumerable processed foods.
“So if we were to ask would it be better to completely get rid of the HEK293 cell line and try to replace it with something new, I think the answer to that is no. Because if we got rid of the HEK293 cell line, we would be creating a huge incentive to produce more cell lines which are more likely to come from aborted fetal tissue,” Moschella said.
The chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ doctrine and pro-life committees have told Catholics they can receive the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States in good conscience, saying, “What’s most important is that people get vaccinated. It can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, also has weighed in on the development of the mRNA vaccines.
He told CNS in an email March 10 it seems unlikely that abortion-related cell lines will be used in ongoing testing of new batches of such vaccines. He referenced Moderna’s confirmation letter as well as the fact that there are “simpler, cheaper and less time- and labor-intensive confirmatory tests” that are available.
In developing the vaccines, he said, Moderna and Pfizer researchers used the cell lines to verify that the mRNA molecules designed by computer would successfully cause cells in a person being injected with them to produce the protein that triggers the immune response.
“After this had been successfully verified, there was no longer a need to repeat such a complex set of tests. Instead a simpler approach can be employed to check out the quality of the mRNA molecules directly, using a technique called nucleotide sequencing (genetic analysis), which does not require any cells, whether from abortions or from other sources,” Father Pacholczyk explained.
Still, he added, the pharmaceutical companies could later decide to modify the vaccines to counteract the new coronavirus variants making their way around the world and could return to testing procedures that rely on abortion-derived cells.
Should Moderna and Pfizer resort to testing using such cells, Father Pacholczyk continued, there would be “less entanglement with these cell lines” than for the vaccines produced by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, both of which manufacture their vaccines directly with abortion-derived cell lines.
AstraZeneca is expected to seek emergency-use authorization from the FDA later in March.
“Hence, the distinction between using these cell lines for direct manufacture vs. using them for testing is a real distinction worth being aware of, and taking into account as we discern which vaccine candidates may be appropriate for us to receive,” the priest said.