"There's a lot of 'maybes' along the line," Dr. David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute and an adjunct professor of molecular genetics at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., told CNA. "It's a totally unproven, unvalidated technology."
Researchers would have to successfully implant fetal lung tissue in mice, confirm that mice can be infected, and then test for treatments of the new coronavirus.
There are ethical alternatives to fetal tissue research, Prentice and Brehany said.
"People are working on other ways of curing the sickness brought on by this virus," Brehany said. "There are some ideas out there."
"In other words, should we conclude that perhaps we're all going to die, or many people will die, because of this restriction? And honestly, I think the short answer is 'no'," he said.
Clinical trials are almost underway on "humanized mice" with human genes, to develop antibodies to the coronavirus infection, Prentice said. A French study found that a combination of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine with the antibiotic azithromycin helped reduce the duration of the new coronavirus.
Another study found that the transplantation of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in patients in a Beijing hospital with severe COVID-19 pneumonia helped significantly improve their lung condition within two days.
Brehany said the current pandemic should not necessitate the removal of existing ethical standards.
"Even as we try to grapple with this pandemic," he said, "survival at all costs, including the costs of acting in an unethical manner, is not right."
The timing of the researchers' complaints is conspicuous, Prentice said, as HHS announced on Feb. 20 that it was establishing a Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board to review grant applications for aborted fetal tissue research, and would be accepting nominations within 30 days.
"It's not about reviewing the science, it's about reviewing ethics of this kind of research," Prentice said of the board.
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The discussion also raises the ethical concerns around aborted fetal tissue research, and other treatments or vaccines derived from questionable or immoral acts.
Research on aborted fetal tissue is not the same level of moral evil as the abortion itself, Brehany said, but it is still wrong. Fetal tissue harvesters "have to work very closely with people who do abortions," he said. "And yet, getting that tissue, while it is bad, it's not as bad as killing someone-it's not as bad as the abortion itself."
There is also the issue of the ethics of vaccines derived from questionable or immoral acts, he said.
The 2008 Vatican document Dignitatis Personae strongly criticized aborted fetal tissue research, but regarding common vaccines-such as those for chicken pox and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR)-that are derived from cell lines of aborted babies, the Vatican said they could be used by parents for "grave reasons" such as danger to their children's health.
The document goes on to state that "everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available."
In a 2017 document on vaccines, the Pontifical Academy for Life noted a "moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others…,especially the safety more vulnerable subjects such as pregnant women and those affected by immunodeficiency who cannot be vaccinated against these diseases."