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The use of embryonic and fetal cells from aborted babies in the pharmaceutical industry and in medical research is well-documented. Image Credit: Hong Kong Medical Journal

Highlights

  • The use of aborted fetus cell lines in vaccine development is well documented.
  • In the past, at least 3 vaccines had been developed using the fetal "cell lines" method.
  • Researchers who studied cells generated from elective abortions have provided useful medical insights into the progression of cenrtain diseases.
  • Recent comments from a bishop in Australia about the use of fetal "cell lines" in vaccines — calling the practice "reprehensible" — highlights lingering ethical dilemma over its use.
  • Science magazine has listed at least 4 of the COVID-19 vaccines under development as using a cell line from aborted fetuses

DUBAI: The use of vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human fetuses has re-emerged as a major talking point. Scientists, ethicists and religious leaders have added to the mix, raising salient facts and issues.

Fact one: The use of embryonic and fetal cells (or cell lines) from aborted babies in vaccines and in medical research is well-documented.

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Fact two: Several (Science reports "at least four") coronavirus vaccine candidates reportedly use the same method.

What are cell lines? To unlock the secrets cell activity, both normal and abnormal, cellular biologists grow cells in the laboratory all the time. Cells from humans, animals, plants and micro-organisms are isolated and cultivated to develop “cell lines” for research and medical treatment.

Cell lines can be classified as:

  • 1) Endothelial such as BAE-1;
  • 2) Epithelial such as HeLa;
  • 3) Neuronal such as SH-SY5Y;
  • 4) Fibroblast such as MRC-5.

What are fetal cells and cell lines used for?

In cell biology, cell line types offer useful applications. For example, cell lines are used to investigate genetic mutations, cancer treatments, drug screening, aging, metabolism and vaccines.

It is used in vaccine production, as well as to make drugs against rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis. Therapies using cells derived from fetuses are being developed to treat haemophilia. They help patients on chemotherapy fight off infection.

The Zika epidemic, caused by a mosquito-borne virus believed to cause "microcephaly" (birth defect, where babies have a small brain than expected) infected up to 1.5 million people in Brazil between 2012 to 2015.

Scientists who conducted research into fetuses detected the virus in fetal brain tissue and amniotic fluid. This established evidence of the virus’ mother-to-child transmission and its role in microcephaly.

What happened in the past with fetal cell culture?

In 1972, a cell culture grown from a fetus has been maintained and widely used to create a variety of vaccines for chickenpox, rabies and rubella for almost 50 years.

In 2016, two articles were published in the New England Journal of Medicine characterising fetuses of elective abortions, one being 32-weeks old, from mothers who contracted Zika virus in the first trimester of pregnancy.

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According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Zika virus is spread to people through mosquito bites. Image Credit: Reuters

Cell culture growth had also known promise in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, diabetes, and childhood leukemia, according to a report on Science Friday. Dr. Eugene Gu, a fetal tissue researcher, was also studying congenital heart and kidney diseases in infants.

WHAT ARE CELL-BASED VACCINES?
Cell-based vaccines are developed from mammalian cell lines, rather than the more common method — which uses the cells in embryonic chicken eggs to develop the antigens that help trigger immunity when injected in humans.

Animals have been used in the mass production of human vaccines since vaccine farms were established to harvest cowpox virus from calves in the late 1800s.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, most vaccines were developed with the use of animals, either by growing pathogens in live animals or by using animal cells.

Many vaccines and anti-toxin products were successfully developed this way. Using animals in vaccine development – particularly live animals – has been found less than ideal.

Cell-line vaccines were later developed from aborted human fetuses.

What kicked up the recent controversy over cell line vaccines?

On Tuesday (August 25, 2020), an Australia prelate said he will "boycott" any COVID-19 vaccine that uses the cell line method of vaccine development with cells from aborted babies.

Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies, one of Australia’s most senior Anglican religious leaders, labelled it “reprehensible”.

Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies
Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies, one of Australia’s most senior Anglican religious leaders, has labelled cell line vaccines from aborted human fetuses as “reprehensible”. Australian media reported Davies as saying that he will boycott a cell-based COVID-19 vaccine and refuse to take it — if it uses cell line research from an aborted fetus. Image Credit: Facebook

Australian media reported Davies as saying that he will boycott a cell-based COVID-19 vaccine and refuse to take it — if it uses cell line research from an aborted fetus.

In 2015, a storm emerged from abortion videos published the US alleging the presence of an illicit fetus-for-money trade in the US, which has triggered a Congressional probe.

Recently, Catholic bishops in the US urged the Food and Drug Admistration (FDA) to use "ethical" means to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Diocese of Kansas City, Kansas, argued there's "no need" for the use of aborted fetal cell lines in the development of coronavirus vaccines. Neumann said in an interview: "I think it's admirable that we as a culture are taking these steps to try to protect those that are most vulnerable to the virus. Hopefully that can translate into a similar concern for the lives of the unborn."

What is the church’s stand on cell-line vaccines?

The Vatican’s official stance is outlined in document, Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), which states Catholics have an ethical duty not to use “biological material” obtained from morally illicit procedures, especially abortion.

“Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material,’’ the document states.

...[D]anger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.

- 'Dignitas Personae'

“Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”

This view was also outlined in the peer-reviewed medical journal Linacre. It stressed that the use of cell-based vaccines generated from fetal tissue of elective abortions, can occur, but only “on a temporary basis”, as it represents a “very remote mediate material cooperation” with the original illicit act of abortion.

Why are fetal cell-based vaccines controversial?

It’s an ethical dilemma. The issue arises from this fact: the use of fetal tissue from an elective (deliberate) abortion is considered “morally illicit”, and could encourage more abortions.

Ethicists, however, say that the tissue — which would otherwise have been discarded — is then used to provide possibly worth-while therapies, or could be valuable for medical research.

So while such studies may be permitted, they argue that such studies require extensive oversight as they could directly encourage elective abortions. Moreover, the use of fetal tissue from elective abortions could “desensitise” beneficiaries to the original illicit act (abortion), and “obscuring the value of all human life and potentially leading to scandal”.

Therefore, they argue, vaccines or therapies from cell lines from aborted fetuses should be avoided — and alternative cell lines of "licit origin” to be utilised.

'PROXIMITY OF ACTIONS'

The distinctions between the different forms of cooperation, categorised by the proximity of actions to the original illicit act.

An example using vaccines generated from fetal tissue of an elective abortion follows:

Principal agent: The mother who elects to terminate her pregnancy.

Formal cooperator: The abortionist who agrees with the actions of the principal agent and supports her by performing the abortion.

Immediate material cooperator: A nurse who does not agree with the actions of the principal agent but supports the abortionist in performance of the abortion.

Mediate material cooperators: The nurse who does not agree with the actions of the principal agent but prepares her for the abortion and monitors her recovery post-abortion.

Remote mediate material cooperators: The technicians at the abortion clinic that process and package fetal tissue for future use in scientific research. The scientists who arrange to receive aborted fetal tissue from the clinic for their research.

Very remote mediate material cooperators: Individuals utilizing a product, for example a vaccine that was generated utilising aborted fetal tissue.

Why is it less ideal to use live animals in vaccine development?

Research animals are costly. They require close monitoring – both to maintain their health and to ensure the continued viability of the research.

One reason: They may be carrying other bacteria or viruses that could contaminate the eventual vaccine. For example, the polio vaccines from the mid 20th century made with monkey cells, were eventually found to contain a monkey virus called SV40, or Simian Virus 40. (Fortunately, the virus was not found to be harmful to humans.)

Another reason: Some pathogens, such as the chickenpox virus, simply do not grow well in animal cells.

Are chicken eggs indeed used in making vaccines?

Yes.

Some vaccines are mass produced using animal products – such as growing flu vaccine viruses in chicken eggs. This is a common method: researchers first had to grow the viruses or bacteria with which to develop those vaccines.

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Some vaccines are made using animal products – such as growing flu vaccine viruses in chicken eggs. This is a common way of mass-producing vaccines: researchers first had to grow the viruses or bacteria with which to develop those vaccines.

Here’s the downside of this method: If an illness were to strike the egg-producing chickens, for example, they might produce too few eggs to be used in the development of seasonal flu vaccine, leading to a serious vaccine shortage.

(A common misconception is that flu vaccines could be produced more rapidly if grown in cell cultures — compared to using chicken eggs. Experts say growing the vaccine viruses in cell cultures would take about the same amount of time.)

What vaccines are recommended for children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends 15 different vaccines for children to induce protection against several viral and bacterial infections that cause disease and death (American Academy of Pediatrics 2016).

What vaccines use fetal cell tissue from elective abortions?

Out of the 15 AAP-recommended vaccines for children, three vaccines — MMR-II, VARIVAX, and HAVRIX — utilise cell lines known as “WI-38” or “MRC-5”.

These cell lines were derived from fetal tissues harvested from elective abortions in the 1960s to generate the attenuated viruses used in these immunisations for rubella (MMR-II, measles, mumps and rubella-2), varicella (VARIVAX), or hepatitis A (HAVRIX). Studies have shown the efficacy of these vaccines in helping save lives.

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Out of the 15 AAP-recommended vaccines for children, three vaccines — MMR-II (Merck 2016a), VARIVAX (Merck 2016b), and HAVRIX (Glaxo Smith Kline 2016) — utilise cell lines known as “WI-38” or “MRC-5”. Image Credit: AFP

Besides these three vaccines, a type of rabies vaccine was also made by growing the viruses in fetal embryo fibroblast cells.

As mentioned above, the fetal embryo fibroblast cells used to grow vaccine viruses were first obtained from elective termination of two pregnancies in the early 1960s. These same embryonic cells (obtained from that time, now called “cell lines”) have continued to grow in the laboratory and are used to make vaccines today. No further sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines.

What are fibroblast cells?

They are the cells needed to hold skin and other connective tissue together.

Why were fetal cells used in vaccines?

Viruses need cells to grow. They tend to grow better in cells from humans, instead of animals, as the viruses infect humans.

Almost all cells die after they have divided a certain number of times (scientists call this as the “Hayflick limit”).

For most cell lines, including fetal cells, it is around 50 divisions. But because fetal cells have not divided as many times as other cell types, they can be used longer. In addition, because of the ability to maintain cells at very low temperatures, such as in liquid nitrogen, scientists are able to continue using the same fetal cell lines that were isolated in the 1960s.

As scientists study viruses, they found that the best cells to use were these fetal cells. When it’s time to make a vaccine, they continued growing the viruses in the cells that worked best during these earlier studies.

Do the vaccines contain whol fetal cells?

No.

Even though fetal cells are used to grow viruses, vaccines themselves do not contain these cells or pieces that are recognisable as full human DNA, according to the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

This is due to the following:

  • The cells eventually die when viruses grow in them -- because, in most cases, the new viruses burst the cells in order to be released.
  • Once the vaccine virus is grown, it is purified. As such, cellular debris and growth reagents are removed.
  • During this process of purification, any remaining cellular DNA is also broken down.

Are there small DNA traces from the original cell lines found in the vaccines that used them?

Yes, according to Dr Paul Offit, director of the centre, who is a paediatrician specialising in infectious diseases, vaccines, immunology, and virology. He is the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine. Here's his video explaining the subject.

What does WI-38 stand for? Why is it important?

WI-38 is a specific cell line. The initials represent the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the early work was done.

In 2013, Nature wrote: “WI-38 has arguably had an even bigger impact on science and medicine than the HeLa line (from Henrietta Lacks, a cell line grown from cancer tissue taken from a poor black woman without her consent). “Whereas HeLa cells are cancerous, WI-38 cells are healthy and normal.

"They have been widely used for the production of virus vaccines given to many people worldwide — against rubella, for instance — and in research as a prototypical normal human cell…. the WI-38 cells came from a legally-aborted fetus. More than half a century ago, a Swedish woman had her pregnancy terminated and the WI-38 cells were grown from tissue samples taken from the lungs of the fetus.”

What’s the HEK 293 cell line?

The human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293 cell line, derived from an elective abortion in the 1970s, is routinely used for production of proteins and cultivation of viruses.

Preference for the HEK 293 line is due to the ease of transfection with gene constructs efficiently translated into proteins desired by researchers.

The Catholic Church’s position on the use of HEK293 cells, or other cell lines generated from elective abortions, in medical research is that they should be “avoided”, as it otherwise creates a “contradiction.”

How many children were affected by these 3 diseases (rubella, varicella and hepatitis A)?

During the rubella pandemic of 1962–1965, 12.5 million clinical cases of rubella were reported in the US alone. These resulted in 2,000 cases of encephalitis, 11,250 fetal deaths, 2,100 neonatal deaths.

In addition, 20,000 infants were also reported born with congenital rubella syndrome, a grouping of birth defects that include blindness, deafness, and heart disease, according to “Trials in Children with a Strain Cultured from an Aborted Fetus”, published in 1965 in the American Journal Diseases of Children.

Since introduction of the rubella vaccine in 1969, the number of rubella cases and newborns with congenital rubella syndrome has been significantly reduced (<10 annually). A US CDC report in 2005 considered rubella no longer endemic in the US.

A single dose of the VARIVAX vaccine is 80–85 percent effective in preventing varicella (chicken pox). HAVRIX is also proven effective in preventing hepatitis A infection in an endemic area (Thailand), with a 95 percent efficacy, according to a 1994 study.

Q: Are fetal cell cultures used on any coronavirus vaccine under development?

Yes.

A June 5, 2020 report in Science states that in at least four of the coronavirus vaccines being developed, the human fetal cells are used as miniature “factories” to generate vast quantities of adenoviruses.

The WHO “landscape” document lists the coronavirus vaccines under various stages of development.

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