False analogies and pseudoscience as “moral arguments” against the use of fetal cell lines to manufacture vaccines

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a new spin antivaxers are putting on the old “fetal cells in vaccines” or the “fetal DNA in vaccines” trope. Regular readers are familiar with this bit of antivaccine misinformation and nonsense. It’s based on the fact that two cell lines originally derived from aborted fetuses in the 1960s are used to grow the virus stock used to make certain vaccines. From this simple observation, you’ll find antivaxers claiming that there are “fetal parts” in vaccines, as if there’s ground up fetus in vaccines. (Obviously, there aren’t and isn’t.) Less unsophisticated antivaxers (and, sadly, one with a PhD in biochemistry named Theresa Deisher) have taken to fear mongering about “fetal DNA” from those cell lines contaminating vaccines and making children autistic. Never mind the speculative contortions of science needed to make that claim, a claim that sounds plausible to the scientifically ignorant and unsophisticated but is laughed at by anyone who’s ever worked with DNA in a research lab. (Just search for “recombinaltion tiniker” on this blog, or even just Google it if you want a laugh.) In any event, when last I discussed this trope, I noted that our old buddy, über-quack Joe Mercola, had also weighed in using the trope, but that I didn’t have time to discuss it and his was more of a general survey. Well, it’s time to dig in.

Mercola’s article was published earlier this week and has the benign-sounding title Moral Implications of Aborted Fetuses in Vaccine Production. Of course, as I discussed last time, the “moral” implications of using cell lines 53+ years removed from the original act of abortion and that have been passaged many, many times, so that virtually nothing of the original fetus remains as the cells have replicated exponentially have been discussed ad nauseam. Indeed, even that most anti-abortion of religions, the Catholic Church, long ago decided that, although it it’s not thrilled with the source of the vaccine virus and would like research into using different cell lines to make vaccines, given the extreme good that vaccines made using these cell lines do, it’s morally acceptable to use vaccines made from MRC-5 and WI-38, the two such cell lines that are used in vaccine manufacture. Not surprisingly, though, Mercola doesn’t just concern himself with the moral issue of using vaccines manufactured using these cell lines. As is his wont, he has to lard in a bunch of pseudoscience and antivaccine tropes.

But, first, he has to accuse agnostics and atheists who don’t understand the religious objection of “intolerance”:
Since the fetal tissues were obtained in an era before medical informed consent really became the norm, there’s no guarantee either that the two women gave such consent, or understood that their fetuses’ cell lines would be used to create injectable vaccines for decades to come. An article on Patheos.com also discusses this issue, displaying the typical intolerance:5 “Here’s what confuses me. People are allowed to donate organs. Parents can even donate their children’s organs. We typically see this as a good thing … Those two abortions were not performed to obtain fetal tissues for vaccines. They were elective abortions that would have been performed regardless of scientists’ interest in using fetal cells … for developing vaccines. I understand that abortion opponents see those two abortions as murder. But you know what? When a child or an adult is murdered, their organs can still be donated … If the child is dead either way, why not donate their organs? … I’ve heard some suggest that vaccines contain residual fetal DNA. Even if that is the case, why would that be so different from cases where someone receives a heart transplant, or a kidney transplant? … Or what about a blood transfusion?”

The blog post cited by Mercola was written by Libby Anne and actually makes an excellent point. There’s far more foreign DNA from another person in an organ transplant or a blood transfusion. She also notes something that I touched on a couple of days ago:

If I had to guess, I’d suggest that there’s an “ickyness” factor associated with fetuses at play here. Those fetuses aren’t really being viewed as people, and those abortions aren’t really being viewed as murders. If abortion opponents did view fetuses as people and abortion as murder, they’d be celebrating the lifesaving power that grew out of the senseless tragedies of those two early deaths, rather than urging everyone they know to avoid vaccines like the dickens because there is fetal DNA in there.

That’s exactly what’s going on here. The claim that there’s “fetal DNA” in vaccines is nothing more than a variant of the “toxins gambit,” a common antivaccine trope that portrays vaccines as gross, disgusting, icky, because (if you believe antivaxers), they’re chock full of gross, disgusting, icky stuff, such as formaldehyde and other chemicals with long names that scare those not familiar with them and who don’t realize that the amounts present in vaccines are too tiny to cause harm. Bill Maher once described vaccination as “injecting disease into your arm,” and antivaxers love to harp on how some vaccines are made using virus grown in monkey cells or other animal cells.

This brings us to Mercola’s next section, asking if using animal cells is the morally superior choice:

Today, many other types of cells are used as growth mediums during vaccine production, and many of those raise moral issues as well. Vaccine growth mediums include6 animal cell strains from chickens, dogs, monkeys, hamsters7 and insects,8 as well as cells from bacteria or yeast. As just one example, the flu vaccine Flucelvax, introduced in 2014, is grown in kidney cells from dogs. Bovine serum (from cow’s blood) is also used for some vaccine components, and trace amounts may remain in the vaccine.10 The use of animal cells doesn’t entirely solve the moral dilemma for all religious faiths though. As noted by Christianity Today:
“There is a subset of the Christian opposition to vaccines that also takes issue with certain animal cells used in medical research, citing concerns over Levitical guidelines on animals and blood products …”

I’m not sure what subset of Christian opposition ot vaccines is based on Levitical guidelines on consuming certain animals and blood, although maybe he’s referring to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who won’t accept blood transfusions based on them. More usually, when you refer to Levitical guidelines on the consumption of certain animals or of blood, you’re referring to Judaism and Islam, although injection of a vaccine is different from whatever the writers of Leviticus could have imagined as consuming; Leviticus refers to eating such products. Of course, as I and others have discussed many times before, both Jewish and Islamic authorities have repeatedly said that using vaccines that contain even gelatin derived from pigs is morally acceptable. The “religious freedom” canard is really an excuse not to vaccinate in the vast majority of cases, rather than a real religious objection to vaccines.

Mercola is about more than just “moral discussions,” though. The part of his article concerning moral arguments regarding vaccines is far surpassed by the pseudoscience he lays down under “Other Reasons to Question Human Fetal Cell Line Vaccines.” First, he cites a paper about vaccines made using fetal cells by—who else?—Theresa Deisher:

Regardless of whether you believe the use of fetal cells from abortions in vaccine production is morally reprehensible or completely justified, there may be other reasons to object to being coerced or compelled to use vaccines — or give your children vaccines — that were made using human fetal tissue cells. According to a study published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology,12 rates of autism strongly correlate with the introduction of vaccines using human fetal cell lines. Three vaccines in particular were found to be significantly correlated with autism: MMR, varicella (chickenpox) and hepatitis A vaccines. According to the study authors, autism rates rose sharply each time one of these vaccines was released.

This paper was published in 2014. Basically, it claims:

The children vaccinated with MMRII, Varicella and Hepatitis A vaccines varied from 19 to 35 months of age at the time of vaccination. Autistic disorder birth year change points were identified as 1980.9, 1988.4 and 1996 for the US, 1987 for UK, 1990.4 for Western Australia, and 1987.5 for Denmark. Change points in these countries corresponded to introduction of or increased doses of human fetal cell line-manufactured vaccines, while no relationship was found between paternal age or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) revisions and autistic disorder diagnosis. Further, linear regression revealed that Varicella and Hepatitis A immunization coverage was significantly correlated to autistic disorder cases.

Changepoint analysis is very tricky, as I pointed out in my deconstruction of this turd of a paper five years ago and for a previous “study” trying to show the same thing. Let’s just say that this is not good evidence for…anything. (Well, except that Theresa Deisher is statistically clueless and Joe Mercola equally so.)

Next up, Mercola invokes the dreaded “SV40 from infected monkey cells used to make the polio virus” gambit:

I wrote about this in “The ‘Vaccine Shock’ of the Year.” The puzzle began in 1994, when Dr. Michele Carbone, a Loyola University researcher, found the virus SV40, which had never before been detected in humans, in half of the human lung tumors he was studying. Within a couple of years, SV40 had also been implicated in other cancers. As noted in a 2004 review19 of the then-available evidence:
Persuasive evidence now indicates that SV40 is causing infections in humans today and represents an emerging pathogen. A meta-analysis of molecular, pathological, and clinical data from 1,793 cancer patients indicates that there is a significant excess risk of SV40 associated with human primary brain cancers, primary bone cancers, malignant mesothelioma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
At first no one could fathom how the virus had been transmitted into the human population. But in a videotaped interview (above), the late Dr. Maurice Hilleman — a world-renowned vaccine pioneer who developed more than three dozen vaccines and developed Merck’s vaccine program — admitted Merck’s responsibility in unleashing this virus via their polio vaccine, which was made by growing the poliovirus in kidney cells from rhesus monkeys.

Unsurprisingly, I wrote about the whole SV40 trope several years ago and why SV40 from the polio vaccine is almost certainly not associated with cancer, including a discussion of the Carbone study and Maurice Hillman’s interview from the 1980s. So did a certain ancient reptile. Of course, Mercola can’t resist mischaracterizing arguments by those evil skeptics pointing out that there’s no evidence that SV40 from the polio vaccine in the early 1960s is a cause of a cancer:

On a side note, were you to do an online search for the SV40-cancer link, you’ll find plenty of “fact-checkers” who claim that none of this is true — that SV40 is not connected with cancer at all, and that the idea has been “totally debunked.” As “proof,” they’ll often furnish a quote from the Institute of Medicine’s October 2002 summary report, which says, “Although SV40 has biological properties consistent with a cancer-causing virus, it has not been conclusively established whether it might have caused cancer in humans.” However, there’s more in that report. The “debunkers” are counting on you not wanting to pay the $30.99 fee to read the whole report, which sheds more light on the cancer connection. The good news is you don’t have to buy the report see what’s in it, as the information is included in a publicly available, free document, “Research on SV40 Exposure and the Development of Cancer.”22 This document is a transcript of testimony by Dr. James Goedert, then chief of the National Cancer Institute’s viral epidemiology branch, given before the Congressional House Committee on Government Reform on September 10, 2003. In it, Goedert quotes the IOM’s study verbatim, which actually says the “evidence is inadequate to reject a causal relationship between SV40-containing polio vaccines and cancer.” Goedert further adds:
The committee stated that the ‘biological evidence is of moderate strength that SV40 exposure could lead to cancer in humans under natural conditions’ and that ‘biological evidence is of moderate strength that SV40 exposure from the polio vaccine is related to SV40 infection in humans.’
In other words, the IOM could not find enough evidence to say SV40 in polio vaccines doesn’t cause cancer. In fact, they found moderately strong evidence that it might, which is the exact opposite of what the so-called fact-checkers would like you to believe.

Well, in the case of the ancient reptile and myself, neither of us actually cited this IOM report, which, I must note, is also not evidence in favor of a causal association between SV40 from polio vaccines and cancer. Mercola is basically appealing to the unknown. In fact, there are a number of studies dated later than the IOM report that are strong evidence that SV40 from vaccines is not associated with human cancers. For example, in 2004, investigators led by Eric Engels, MD, in NCI’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, examined the possible association between SV40 exposure and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. (In laboratory rodents, SV40 causes lymphoma.) In a case-control study, Engels’ team tested for SV40 antibodies in the blood of 724 non-Hodgkins lymphoma patients and 622 controls (people without the cancer). Overall, SV40-reactive antibodies were found in only 7-10 percent of cancer cases and 10-11 percent of controls, indicating no statistical association between the virus and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Multiple other studies are summarized here. In other words, you don’t need the 2002 IOM report to conclude that SV40 sequences from the pre-1963 polio vaccine did not cause cancer. The bottom line is that SV40 is common in humans, and its presence has not correlated with any particular cancer in people who received the pre-1963 polio vaccine.

Finally, Mercola circles back to “moral arguments” by invoking the most extreme examples he can think of, examples that really have nothing to do with the issue of using cells from an aborted fetus to grow virus stock, but, damn, they sure do sound spectacular. He jumps right from the use of two aborted fetuses 50+ years ago to make cell lines to embryonic research:

The fact that some have religiously based objections to the use of human and/or animal cells in vaccine manufacturing is perhaps more understandable when you consider that embryonic research has always been, and continues to be a contentious issue with many moral and ethical implications. For example, a July 2018 article in Nature addressed novel research in which scientists are pushing the boundary on how long they can grow a human embryo in the lab. In this case, the embryos used were collected for in vitro fertilization but were no longer needed and had been offered up for scientific research.


Other scientists, in an effort to push past the 14-day threshold, are creating synthetic embryos from human stem cells.31 These synthetic structures are not covered by the two-week rule, allowing them to examine embryonic development far longer. They may eventually also be used in drug trials, to evaluate a drug’s effect on fetal development, which could help determine whether a drug is safe for use during pregnancy. According to Nature, “These constructs lack certain components essential for full development, and couldn’t give rise to a human if implanted.” Still, that hasn’t prevented ethical concerns from arising. Martin Pera, a stem-cell biologist at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine told Nature, “I think it really is a gray area. How do we regard these structures that are developing?”

Again, this has nothing to do with isolating a cell line from an aborted fetus and passaging the cells for 50 years. MRC-5 and WI-38 are cell lines, not embryos or embryo-like structures, not even close. It’s as if Mercola thinks that growing a full embryo in the lab is the same thing as growing isolated cells from an aborted fetus. Mercola conflates the two deceptively in order to make it seem as though making vaccine virus stock using these cell lines is akin to growing artificial embryos in the laboratory. Indeed, he makes that very point here:

The technology does raise a number of debatable questions. Is the creation of synthetic embryos a justifiable means for every end? Should they be allowed to be grown like fake meat? Will synthetic embryos eventually be used in vaccine production? If so, would moral questions still remain? As for the use of natural embryos and fetal cells, should people just “get over” the “yuck” factor — or their deeply held moral and religious beliefs — regardless of how the cells used in scientific experiments and vaccine production were obtained? And does the end (more consistent vaccine production) justify the means (the use of “the earliest version of human beings”) to advance scientific knowledge and develop commercial products?

As for Mercola’s deceptively framed question (“Will synthetic embryos eventually be used in vaccine production?”), the answer is almost certainly a resounding no. Why? They’re not needed, and it would be far more expensive, difficult, and inconvenient to use synthetic embryos to grow virus stock. Cells like MRC-5 and WI-38 can be grown in mass quantities, billions upon billions of cells, each cranking out virus particles, easily and inexpensively, as can various animal cell lines.

In the end, all the antivaccine ruckus about the “moral issues” of using cells isolated from a fetus 50 years ago to grow vaccine stock is nothing more than a variant of the “toxins” gambit. It is all about the “yuck” factor, a ploy to frighten parents by portraying vaccines as a disgusting product of an immoral act. That’s the idea, and it takes cherry picked science and false analogies to make. Unfortunately, antivaxers like Mercola are good at cherry picking science and making false analogies.