The Ethical Race for a Vaccine

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by Paul Murano  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  June 10, 2020   

Some researchers using aborted fetal cell lines, some not

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - The culture war has found a new battlefield — the quest for a Wuhan virus vaccine amid ethical concerns. 

A sense of urgency has sped up the process, but according to Church teaching, Catholics and other people of goodwill cannot live by the utilitarian ethic of using some human beings as objects in order to help others — diligence is needed in supporting only a vaccine that is morally acceptable.

Cell lines are often used in vaccine production to grow viral proteins that make vaccines work. Vaccines themselves produce immunity by training immune cells to fight off infection by exposing them to weakened or dead viruses. Allowing for the body's immune cells to fight off weakened viruses or viral fragments prepares it to identify and neutralize the virus, should it be encountered in the future.

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John Di Camillo

Cells from animals were commonly used before the 1960s, but they carried risks. For example, in 1960, it was discovered that monkey kidney cells used to make a polio vaccine contained the virus Simian Virus 40, potentially putting patients at risk. As a result, some researchers turned to human cells.

MRC-5 and WI-38 are human fetal cell strains derived from aborted preborn children in the 1960s that researchers often use to develop vaccines. "Nobody should be developing vaccines using these cell lines. Period," says John Di Camillo, staff ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. Concurring with Dr. Di Camillo is Children of God for Life, the leading fetal cell watchdog website.

The Race Is on

The race to find a vaccine for the Wuhan virus has pharmaceutical companies sprinting to have a vaccine ready by the end of the year or by early 2021. From big pharma to small biotech companies and universities, researchers have been pushing out dozens of vaccine possibilities and have fast-tracked promising vaccines to clinical trials in record time, some say without enough protection protocols.   

Jonathan Abbamonte of the Population Research Institute (PRI) told Church Militant that, according to the World Health Organization, there are now more than 130 potential vaccines in development. "We were not able to look through them all. But we looked at most of the leading candidates currently undergoing at least phase I clinical trials," he said.

Ten have already advanced to clinical trials to test safety and efficacy. Several more potential vaccines are expected to begin clinical trials before the end of the year.

The race to find a vaccine for the Wuhan virus has pharmaceutical companies sprinting to have a vaccine ready by the end of the year or by early 2021.

In the quest for a vaccine, four known companies are using aborted fetal cell lines — Moderna, Oxford University/AstraZeneca, CanSino Biologics/Beijing Institute of Biotechnology and Inovio Pharmaceuticals. They are using cell line HEK-293, a human fetal kidney cell line derived from kidney tissue from a baby girl aborted in the Netherlands in 1972.

Further, Janssen, the pharmaceutical division of Johnson & Johnson, is using the human fetal cell line PER.C6 to develop its vaccine. PER.C6 was derived from retinal tissue taken from an 18-week-old baby boy who was aborted in the Netherlands in 1985 and later converted into a fetal cell line in 1995.

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The U.S. government has made grants totaling almost $2 billion for the development of vaccines using fetal cell lines. Most of this funding has been awarded through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

A number of promising vaccine candidates, such as those being developed by Novavax, Sanofi Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and Sinovac, are using ethically-derived cell lines. Additionally, rival pharmaceutical giants Sanofi Pasteur and GSK have teamed up in an unprecedented partnership to develop a vaccine for the Wuhan virus.

This technology could potentially not just be ethical but also offer scientific advantages.

The U.K.-based GSK and France-based Sanofi companies are the world's first- and third-largest vaccine producers, respectively, by total revenue in 2017 according to FiercePharma. Sanofi Pasteur will be bringing to the table an ethically produced antigen for the vaccine and GSK will be contributing an adjuvant—an immune-response booster that improves the effectiveness of a vaccine.  
Ethically produced vaccines are being developed by Maryland-based Novavax as well as by China-based Sinovac, whose antigen is ethically grown in monkey kidney cells. Pharmaceutical giant Merck has also jumped into the virus vaccine race recently, announcing it will be pursuing three vaccine candidates. The hope is that Merck will use ethically derived means since its recent Ebola vaccine (V290) is manufactured using an ethically derived cell line from the kidney cells of an African green monkey.

The John Paul II Medical Research Institute (JP2MRI) is also calling for an ethically derived vaccine, and currently running a campaign to raise money for research. It states on its website:

A major challenge of producing a potent vaccine requires that the cell line provide the most native glycosylation system in which sugar molecules are added to proteins produced by cells. Unfortunately, the current cell lines used in bio-manufacturing lack a native human glycosylation system. ... Thus, for the 2020 campaign, the Institute proposes to conduct research to produce a viral protein from coronavirus, which can serve as a vaccine. We believe that our cell lines present the advantage of providing the most native glycosylation system for producing a vaccine. Thus, this technology could potentially not just be ethical but also offer scientific advantages.

A group of religious leaders signed a letter sent to President Donald Trump and the leaders of two federal agencies, asking the government to "encourage and incentivize" the development of vaccines using cells that are not "ethically problematic." The letter was signed by four Catholic bishops, several Catholic health care organizations and the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, among others.

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Alex Azar

The Population Research Institute also has an online petition for the public to sign that will be sent to President Trump and his Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar.

The Catholic Church has long, vocally opposed the development of vaccines using unethically derived fetal cell lines. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) 2008 Instruction Dignitas Personae states that the use of fetal cell lines for developing vaccines "gives rise to various ethical problems with regard to cooperation in evil and with regard to scandal" and that "everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their health care system make other types of vaccines available."

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