Health Care

The Facts about the COVID Vaccines and Fetal Cell Lines

Registered nurse Kayla Johnson prepares a coronavirus vaccine at Boston Medical Center in Boston, Mass., December 16, 2020. (Erin Clark/Pool via Reuters)
For pro-life Americans, the scientific facts behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines’ production should guide their decisions.

Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is now being distributed — first to medical workers and vulnerable groups, then to the general public — in the United States. Moderna’s product is expected to join it in the pipeline shortly. The beginning of the end is not just in sight: It’s arrived. In time, the daily death counts, shutdowns, mask requirements, virtual events, and other pandemic-imposed restrictions and conditions of life will become a thing of the past.

Some Americans harbor fears over the safety of these vaccines — reasonably, given how quickly they were produced. However, as I explained last week, these vaccines have been held to the same Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards as any other vaccine; the new, mRNA-based vaccine does nothing to change your DNA, as some skeptics have supposed; and they have proven just as effective among the elderly and infirm as among the young and healthy.

For pro-life Americans, however, there remains the serious ethical concern over the use of cells harvested from aborted fetuses in testing and developing the various coronavirus vaccines. How is one to make a moral judgment in weighing the cost of taking one of these two vaccines against the cost of waiting for the release of others in which fetal cell lines played no role at all?

Neither of the two pro-life advocates I spoke with on the topic — Dr. Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, or Dr. Tara Sander Lee, a senior fellow at the Charlotte Lozier Institute and director of its life-sciences program — felt it appropriate to direct others to make one decision or another. Instead, they encouraged individuals to consider all of the ethical factors at play so that they can come to an informed decision for themselves.

First, it’s important to identify the provenance of the cells used in testing. In the case of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it was HEK 293 kidney cells that were used. These are believed to have originated with an abortion, but note my use of the singular. HEK 293s are not continuously gathered as more abortions are performed. They were originally gleaned from a 1973 procedure in the Netherlands and have since been reproduced in labs for various research purposes. Dr. Lee explained in an interview with National Review that “a fetal cell line is not the same as fetal tissue.” These cell lines began with a cell taken from fetal tissue, but the actual cells used for research were “multiplied into many cells of the same kind.” So, while “the connection with abortion is still there,” she said, Pfizer and Moderna have not been “trafficking in babies’ body parts” in the same way that Planned Parenthood has been accused of. Dr. Meaney concurred with this assessment, calling it “a very important distinction” between reproduced fetal cell lines and fetal tissue, though he stipulates that in his opinion it is “wrong in every case for scientists to work with this material.”

Both doctors also draw a distinction between not only the kinds of cells used but the particular uses they are put to. There are no HEK 293 kidney cells in either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Dr. Lee told National Review that HEK 293s were involved only in the “post-production” process of the “final vaccine product”: that is, they are not part of the vaccine but rather were test subjects used to help determine how effective it was. This is not the case for all the vaccine candidates. Some of the higher-profile products under development — by Janssen Research and Johnson & Johnson, as well as AstraZeneca and Oxford University, for example — are using fetal cells in the production process. In these vaccines, there is a “direct line” between the vaccine and abortion; that line does not exist in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Dr. Meaney also believes that there are gradations in what is acceptable in the use of fetal cells in this regard, with their use in testing being more acceptable than their use within vaccines themselves. This view is rooted not only in moral or philosophical reasoning but also in scientific reality. He elaborated on this point: “When these vaccines are produced in the aborted fetal cell lines, they [researchers] have to go in and filter out the cell lines from the vaccine before they produce the vaccine.”

Do alternatives exist? Dr. Lee says they do, “both for development and production, but also testing as well.” These alternatives also “function in the same way and are readily available” for manufacturers’ use. Nevertheless, fetal cell lines like HEK 293 are often chosen because “there’s a lot of tradition in using them.” As a result, they are both trusted by researchers and readily available to them.

One company working on a vaccine free of any ties whatsoever to fetal cell lines is CureVac, a German biotech firm that has just begun Phase 3 clinical trials on a vaccine that uses HeLa cells reproduced from non-fetal cells. However, as of this moment, it does have more hurdles to clear than did the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Moreover, its chief financial officer has stated that “during this initial pandemic phase, we are focusing mostly on Europe and an EMA [European Medicines Agency] approval.” He continued, “In the future post-pandemic phase, we plan to target the U.S. as we see significant potential for our vaccine in that market.”

At a time when more and more Americans are dying — nearly 18,000 have perished from COVID-19 in just the last week — the benefits of waiting for a completely “clean” vaccine must be weighed against the costs. Vaccines less in the public eye are often tested on or made using these cell lines, and no one is the wiser. If you’ve already taken one of those, is there a moral cost to taking another one? Conversely, what’s the cost of not getting vaccinated against COVID-19?

There is no one answer for pro-lifers who are struggling with whether to be inoculated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Individuals must take into account their own risk factors and the danger they might pose to others if they are not vaccinated; they must make a personal estimation of the moral cost — if they believe there to be one — of taking a vaccine that has been tested on HEK 293s. Regarding the origin of those cells, my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru argues that “the connection between that possible abortion and the vaccines is attenuated.” In his view, “no one who takes them to protect himself and his community from COVID need worry that he is either causing an abortion, encouraging abortion in the future, or conferring approval of it.” Moreover, while Dr. Lee declined to give a thumbs-up or -down on them, the Lozier Institute calls both “ethically uncontroversial.”

I’m inclined to agree that the benefits of getting the vaccine far outweigh the costs in this case. It is true that manufacturers will continue to use these cell lines without any pushback, but is a pandemic the time to take a stand even in the limited case of testing? When weighing costs, Americans should base their decisions on the facts.