Are fetal cell lines used in the COVID-19 Vaccine? KSL Investigates
SALT LAKE CITY — As the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine were administered in Utah, the KSL Investigators dove into claims on social media that COVID-19 vaccines contain or utilize fetal cell lines in their development.
In the case of the Pfizer vaccine that was recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — those claims are false.
How An mRNA Vaccine Works
The primary ingredient in this vaccine is messenger RNA, or mRNA.
The mRNA is synthetically created in a lab and therefore does not rely on research cell lines for mass production of vaccines.
Dr. Meredith Wadman is the author of “The Vaccine Race” and a reporter with Science Magazine.
Wadman described mRNA as, “a little snippet of genetic code … and it’s tucked inside a teeny, tiny fat bubble called a lipid nanoparticle.”
This fat bubble, she said, helps the body’s cells absorb the mRNA, which then produces a spike protein nearly identical to the one in the coronavirus.
“Our immune systems are alerted and trained, so that next time if we encounter the virus in real life, we’re going to have an immune army waiting to pounce on it,” she explained.
In addition to mRNA, Pfizer lists multiple other ingredients in tiny amounts, including salts and sugar. The salts (monobasic potassium phosphate, potassium chloride, dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate, sodium chloride) are natural products that help break down the protective barrier around the mRNA.
Ingredients for the Moderna vaccine, which could receive authorization from the FDA within days, can be found in the company’s briefing document to the FDA. It contains the same mRNA process as the Pfizer vaccine and does not utilize fetal cell lines.
What Are Fetal Cell Lines?
Two COVID vaccines currently in development that do use fetal cell lines are from AstraZeneca and Janssen.
So, what are cell lines, and why are they controversial?
“A cell line really refers to cells that self-replicate and continue for many, many, many generations in the lab, or when frozen, can be retrieved even decades later and begin to divide again,” said Wadman.
Cell lines offer an easy, inexpensive and stable platform for researchers to test and develop vaccines.
Wadman explained that certain cell lines used in these vaccines include HEK293 and PER.C6. Each evolved from an aborted fetus.
“They’re relying on self-replicating cells that have been around for decades in test tubes, from one abortion that took place in about 1972 and another in the mid-80s,” she said.
“The manufacturing of these new COVID vaccines that rely on fetal cells and of standard childhood vaccines,” said Wadman, “do not require ongoing abortions, do not require any kind of women on an ongoing basis handing over their aborted fetuses to science. That’s just not true.”
As Wadman clarified, these fetal cell lines are frequently used in medical labs and exist in childhood vaccines like those that protect against Rubella and Hepatitis A.
Ethical Questions Regarding Fetal Cell Lines
The ethical debate over using fetal cell lines is nothing new.
Jean Hill is the Director of Life, Justice, and Peace for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. She said this topic has been researched numerous times by the Catholic Church over the last two decades.
“One of the most vocal times the Church came out in support of vaccines was with the German measles (Rubella),” she said.
While multiple Church documents have come out in favor of vaccines, the most recent occurred in 2017. The Vatican, through the Pontifical Academy for Life, told Catholics: “The cell lines currently used [in vaccines] are very distant from the original abortions and no longer imply that bond of moral cooperation indispensable for an ethically negative evaluation of their use.”
Ultimately, Hill told the KSL Investigators that Catholics should make ethical choices when possible, like choosing the mRNA vaccines over those made with fetal cell lines, if possible with the rollout process.
“The Vatican has come out and said, if there is a serious health risk, we who receive the vaccine have no way to determine how it’s developed, although we can be advocates for making sure those vaccines are developed ethically,” Hill said.
Also ethically relevant, said Hill, is the moral responsibility Catholics have to get the vaccine.
“The moral equation weighs in favor of getting that vaccine. We don’t want to be the cause of somebody else’s death. It is acceptable for you to get that vaccine to protect life,” Hill added.
We also reached out to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to learn their stance on the COVID-19 vaccine and were told, “This is not something we will have anything to contribute.”
The faith has a long history in support of vaccines. The church’s website states, “We urge members of the Church … to protect their own children through immunization.”
In addition, all missionaries are required to be vaccinated and Latter-day Saint Charities has contributed millions to help with vaccination campaigns worldwide.
We reached out to AstraZeneca for information on the development of their COVID vaccine. The company spokesperson responded with this statement:
“Human embryonic kidney 293 (HEK293) cells are derived from one of the most common cell lines used in biological research. The HEK293 cell line is derived from normal fetal human embryonic kidney cells initially created in 1973. This large-scale protein production of HEK293 cells means that vector vaccines like the potential AZD1222 vaccine can be efficiently grown in these HEK293 cells in large quantities.
Use of cell lines today must comply with ethical guidelines and consistent with these they are commonly used in medical research for the greater benefit of scientific advancement. These cell lines are commonly used as they have relatively quick dividing times, are easily grown in suspension and produce high levels of proteins. Using techniques to produce vaccine viruses in human cell lines has been a significant advance in vaccine development.
Several vaccines that protect against preventable infections that may cause significant disease and even death, use cell lines derived from fetal tissue. Vaccines that protect against measles, mumps and rubella and chicken pox are examples of vaccines that use cell lines derived from fetal tissue.”
Neither the AstraZeneca nor Janssen vaccines have yet applied for emergency use authorization from the FDA.
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