Written by Julia Bulova
Controlling the spread of scientific misinformation has been a struggle since the beginning of the pandemic, and this threat to public health has not stopped with the advent of two extremely successful vaccines. In fact, with this new development comes a torrent of damaging information. Among widely disseminated false claims of vaccine-related deaths and extreme allergic reactions, the newest propaganda involves the disapproval of fetal cell line use in vaccine development by Anti-vaxxers and some religious groups. This misinformation is a huge problem for vaccine rollout and achieving herd immunity, and these claims require further investigation.
Both Moderna and Pfizer used the same fetal cell line, HEK293, which is a line originating from an elective abortion in the Netherlands in 1973 (ironically, the same year as Roe v. Wade). Part of the fear surrounding the vaccine stems from a misunderstanding about how this cell line is used. The fetal cells are infected with the virus, mirroring a human Covid-19 infection, and allow for the testing of vaccines on human cells. There is no trace of these cells in the vaccine that is being dispensed. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, President Trump restricted the use of fetal cell lines in NIH funded research, perhaps at the behest of anti-choice groups, a move that frustrated many scientists. This technology is vital for immunology research and public health. A year later, Trump claimed credit for the vaccine that relied on this technology that he heavily restricted, making it unlikely that his dispute of fetal tissue technology is very personal or important to him.
Although the Pope has encouraged vaccination, other Catholic leaders are asking church members to avoid the vaccine based on its connection to fetal cell lines. Opponents of fetal cell lines primarily argue that any use of fetal cell lines is unethical, even if these cells are not in the vaccine itself. Bishop Joseph Brennon of California called the Covid-19 vaccine testing process “morally unacceptable,” and urged Catholics to avoid this vaccination, a move that he specified did not have to do with vaccines in general, but rather the specific ones that used this technology. This outcry against the vaccine has caused a shock to much of the public, despite the fact that the Moderna and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines are not even close to being outliers in terms of the technology they have employed. The measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), chickenpox, and polio vaccines are just three examples of vaccines that also used fetal tissue in their testing phases. Because these are viruses that infect humans, they grow best in human cells. For obvious reasons, testing the vaccine on living viruses is an important part of understanding if it will be successful when administered to humans, and this fetal tissue is crucial to that process.
While there are Catholics or other groups that have been opposed to this technology long before the pandemic (hence Trump’s 2019 effort to restrict it) and have not received any of these popular vaccines, the suspicious timing of this public rebuke to vaccination should be investigated not just as an ethical concern but one of many attempts to cause fear and unrest during a global pandemic. In the past, Catholic groups have released statements clarifying that although they do not agree with fetal tissue use, vaccination is acceptable without other options, which is the case in the United States, where Pfizer and Moderna are the only vaccines approved for widespread use. It is clear that the official stance on vaccination is not new or altered based on the pandemic, and this sudden outcry should be addressed as what is it: misinformation and fear-mongering.
In a media climate where public trust in science is decreasing as unreliable news sources increase, it is even more important to understand the truth behind claims as well as their contexts. The Covid-19 vaccine has no fetal tissue in the vaccine itself. Fetal tissue was legally used for its testing phase, specifically for the reason that testing a vaccine on a human-infecting virus sometimes (unsurprisingly) requires the use of human cells to ensure that the vaccine works. This scenario is not unique to our current situation, as many other widely utilized vaccines and research use this technology for similar reasons. Having carefully considered the ethical concerns that some may have with the vaccine, it is of utmost importance to curb the spread of misinformation, or at the very least, stop the spread of incomplete information. We are perhaps months away from vaccinating enough of the public to achieve herd immunity, and every dose counts.
Edited by: Emily Leventhal