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.
"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.
Another ethical question at the heart of COVID vaccine production is the speed at which it is taking place.
(Story continues below)
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The hurried development makes it all the more important that bioethicists scrutinize the vaccine, said NCBC president Joseph Meaney in a July 24 statement.
"Good bioethicists are nearly always wary when scientific research is rushed forward, and even more so when the potential impact on human beings could be profound," he said.
Brehany echoed that point, telling CNA that a vaccine must be developed and distributed with the informed consent for all recipients about the possible risks, without testing on vulnerable populations especially the poor.
On April 17, leading U.S. bishops wrote Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), asking that a COVID vaccine be developed ethically.
"It is critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically: no American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience," the bishops wrote.
The letter was signed was the chairs of the U.S. Catholic bishops' committees on pro-life issues, doctrine, and domestic justice, and subcommittee on health care issues. Leaders of pro-life and bioethics groups, including the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the Catholic Medical Association, and the American College of Pediatricians, also signed the letter.