While demand for a vaccine is urgent, questions have been raised by some pro-life advocates about the Moderna candidate, and its ethical development - specifically, whether it has been tested using a fetal cell line taken from an aborted baby.
The Charlotte Lozier Institute, research arm of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, has listed the Moderna vaccine among the “ethically uncontroversial CoV-19 vaccine programs,” along with development projects from Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Sanofi & Translate Bio, Pfizer and BioNTech, Novavax, and Merck/IAVI.
According to CLI, two vaccine candidates are the product of unethical programs—those being developed by the University of Oxford and Astrazeneca, and by Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Res. & Devel., Inc.
On the straightforward question of whether the Moderna vaccine is being produced from cell lines from elective abortions, Dr. John Brehany, director of institutional relations at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, said “it appears that the answer is no.”
Vaccines use a weakened version of a disease, grown in laboratory cell lines, in order to inoculate someone against the disease. With some common vaccines, such as those used to fight chicken pox and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), the cell lines of babies who were aborted decades ago are used to grow the weakened diseases.
This is also reportedly the case with some coronavirus vaccines in development, such as one worked on by the University of Oxford and Astrazeneca, which relies on the HEK-239 cell lines from a baby aborted in the Netherlands in the 1970s. That program is also being funded by the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed.”
But the Moderna vaccine works in different way than most vaccines. Its method of innoculation “is not based on using cells at all in production,” Brehany said.
The Moderna vaccine relies upon a spike protein from SARS-CoV-2 to induce the production of antibodies in the recipient, instead of a weakened version of the disease.
The gene sequences for the spike protein were determined to be a good candidate for producing a vaccine.
Non-Moderna scientists had initially made DNA vectors with the gene sequence of the spike protein, and injected them in HEK-293 cells to produce the spike protein. That work was studied and evaluated by experts at NIAID and the University of Texas, who determined that the spike protein was a good candidate for testing. Moderna was not involved in the DNA construction nor was it involved in the evaluation of the construction.
Thus, Brehany said, while the company has some association with the use of cell lines from elective abortions, it is not responsible for that use, and its vaccine was not produced using those HEK-293 cells.
A 2005 document from the Pontifical Academy for Life considered the moral issues surrounding vaccines prepared in cell lines descended from aborted fetuses. The Vatican group concluded that it can be both morally permissible and morally responsible for Catholics to use these vaccines.
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“In general, doctors or parents who resort to the use of these vaccines for their children, in spite of knowing their origin (voluntary abortion), carry out a form of very remote mediate material cooperation,” the pontifical academy said.
“The duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children,” it added.
The pontifical academy also noted that Catholics have an obligation to use ethically-sourced vaccines when available, and have an obligation to speak up and request the development of new cell lines that are not derived from aborted fetuses.
The 2008 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document Dignitatis personae strongly criticized aborted fetal tissue research. The CDF said that researchers should “refuse” the material even when they have “no close connection” to “the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion.”
“This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life,” the CDF stated.
Regarding common vaccines, such as those for chicken pox and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), that may be derived from cell lines of aborted babies, the Vatican has said they could be used by parents for “grave reasons” such as danger to their children’s health.