Somehow, some way, my ambitious plans for finishing out the week before Christmas with a catalogue of appropriate “insolence” directed at pseudoscience have come to naught, and I find myself on Christmas Eve morning with only one post this week, and even that was a repackaged post from my not-so-super-secret other blog. I suppose I could blame the COVID-19 vaccine the first dose of which I was fortunate enough to receive last Friday. A side effect inhibits blogging! I imagine that, were that actually true, it would pose a conundrum to antivaxxers who spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines confronting the possibility that a vaccine might shut Orac up for a while. Be that as it may, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about COVID-19 and the race to develop vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the nasty coronavirus responsible for our current pandemic, it’s that every old antivax trope is new again, up to and including the claim that the COVID-19 vaccine will render our women infertile, as I wrote about a few days ago. This brings me to the latest, namely the blatantly obvious attempt to pander to religious fundamentalists by trying to link COVID-19 vaccines to abortion, specifically by claiming that “fetal cells” or “fetal tissue” is inextricably linked to their manufacture. Truly, in terms of antivaccine disinformation and propaganda, in the age of COVID-19 and with the vaccines rolling out, everything old is new again.
Before I get to COVID-19 vaccines, let me just point out what I mean when I say that “everything old is new again” in reference to the claim that COVID-19 vaccines are so horribly tainted by abortion. Regular readers know that antivaxxers have long demonized certain vaccines because human cell lines that originated from aborted fetuses nearly 60 years ago are used to grow up the virus stock used to make the vaccines. Vaccines manufactured using such cell lines (WI-38 or MRC-5, for example) have saved millions of lives and prevented billions of cases of disease. Even so, demonizing vaccines that currently require such cells for their manufacture is such a common antivax trope that I even have tags for it, including fetal cell lines, aborted fetal tissue, and (of course) fetal DNA, that last one because one of the most persistent claims among antivaxxers is that vaccines are contaminated with fetal DNA. That last one is particularly persistent, thanks to biochemist turned antivaccine propagandist Theresa Deisher. If you believe Deisher and antivaxxers, that fetal DNA is so magic that truly minuscule amounts of short fragments of fetal DNA can not only somehow pass through the blood-brain barrier but then also get into neurons and express “non-self” proteins that are then somehow recognized by the immune system to produce “autoimmunity” leading to—you guessed it!—autism. Never mind that the speculative contortions of science needed to make such claims, which can sound plausible to the scientifically ignorant and unsophisticated but, are laughed at by anyone who’s ever worked with DNA in a research lab. (If you have molecular biology knowledge and want a laugh, just search for “recombinaltion tiniker” on this blog, or even just Google the misspelled term.) It’s such a common antivax trope, that antivaxxers have even duped state legislatures to try to pass bills mandating “informed consent” about vaccines manufactured using these cell lines. It’s all part of a very transparent effort by antivaxxers to use religion to demonize vaccines, an effort that’s included trying to convince Jews and Muslims that vaccines containing gelatin are unclean.
Unsurprisingly, the same sort of nonsense is now being peddled about the two COVID-19 vaccines that have just been made available by emergency use authorizations issued by the FDA, the vaccine by Pfizer-BioNTech and the one by Moderna. Of course, when I learned this, I wondered: How could this be? Both of these vaccines are RNA vaccines, which use a messenger RNA (mRNA) packaged in lipid nanoparticles to allow entry into cells to induce cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. (More on that later.)
First, this campaign began before the vaccines were anywhere near ready to be manufactured and rolled out, when researchers were being urged in June not to use fetal cell lines to develop COVID-19 vaccines:
Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and Canada, along with other antiabortion groups, are raising ethical objections to promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are manufactured using cells derived from human fetuses electively aborted decades ago. They have not sought to block government funding for the vaccines, which include two candidate vaccines that the Trump administration plans to support with an investment of up to $1.7 billion, as well as a third candidate made by a Chinese company in collaboration with Canada’s National Research Council (NRC). But they are urging funders and policymakers to ensure that companies develop other vaccines that do not rely on such human fetal cell lines and, in the United States, asking the government to “incentivize” firms to only make vaccines that don’t rely on fetal cells.
“It is critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically: no American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience,” members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and 20 other religious, medical, and political organizations that oppose abortion wrote to Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in April. “Thankfully, other [COVID-19] vaccines … utilize cell lines not connected to unethical procedures and methods.”
The article went on to note that the vaccine candidates by University of Oxford/AstraZenica, Janssen Research and Development, University of Pittsburgh, ImmunityBio/NantKwest, and CanSino Biologics, Inc./Beijing Institute of Biotechnology had used HEK-293 or PER.C6 cell lines in their development, which had led anti-abortion activists to give aid to antivaxxers:
David Prentice, vice president and research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, which opposes abortion, notes researchers making adenovirus vaccines have modified HEK-293 cells to be adept at packaging new genes—such as those that direct cells to assemble the coronavirus spike protein—into adenoviruses. But he adds that other technologies are available, including using cells captured from amniocentesis that are engineered to make replication-deficient adenoviruses.
“The use of cells from electively aborted fetuses for vaccine production makes these five COVID-19 vaccine programs unethical, because they exploit the innocent human beings who were aborted,” Prentice and a co-author—molecular biologist James Sherley, a Lozier Institute associate scholar and director of the adult stem cell company Asymmetrex—wrote in a position paper published last month.
Interestingly, even the Charlotte Lozier Institute, which has led the way in demonizing vaccines that use cell lines derived from human fetuses listed the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech RNA vaccines as “ethically uncontroversial.” One interesting thing I discovered is that the demonization of the Moderna candidate was based on disinformation:
The supposed connection to aborted fetal cell lines in patents does not cite the correct Moderna patent related to its vaccines, and the cites in the incorrect patent are to research concept examples unrelated to the actual vaccine production. Some Moderna collaborators (NIAID/UT) did use abortion-derived HEK293 cells to produce viral spike protein to test its shape and antibody binding, but their test did not determine the design or production of the nucleic acid sequence, and in fact was done only after Moderna had already determined the genetic sequence needed, developed their mRNA sequence vaccine, and begun production of the mRNA vaccine. Moderna is not producing a spike protein for its vaccine, nor does it use cell lines (aborted fetal cell or otherwise) in the production of this mRNA vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine is mRNA (instructions) that tells the body how to produce its own spike protein. Bottom line, Moderna vaccine production does not utilize aborted fetal cells and its design did not rely upon aborted fetal cells.
Neither does the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Indeed, one of the huge advantages of RNA-based vaccines is that you don’t need a whole bunch of cells to grow up a whole bunch of virus as a source of protein antigen to use in the vaccine. RNA can be synthesized, along with all the other components of the vaccine. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is saying that the use of COVID-19 cell lines is morally acceptable if there are no other alternatives:
The Vatican concluded that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses” in the research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available to the public. But it stressed that the “licit” uses of such vaccines “does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses.”
The Vatican didn’t name any of the COVID-19 vaccines already being given to people in some countries or authorized to be used soon.
In its statement, the Vatican explained that obtaining vaccines that do not pose an ethical dilemma is not always possible. It cited circumstances in countries “where vaccines without ethical problems are not made available to physicians and patients” or where special storage or transport conditions make their distribution more difficult.
This is, as I’ve noted before, no different than the position that the Catholic Church has always taken about vaccines that use cell lines derived from aborted fetuses in their manufacture. Basically, as I’ve described before many times, the Vatican has long recognized that the extreme good of protecting children’s lives from deadly diseases far outweighs the distant evil (in the view of the Catholic Church) that created the cell lines. In the case of RNA vaccines, that connection is even more tenuous. The bottom line is that the ranting about “fetal parts” and “fetal cells” in COVID-19 vaccines is, at least right now, even more disconnected from reality than previous ranting. True, as some of the more “problematic” cell lines begin to be approved, antivaxxers will raise this zombie issue again. The obvious response is: If you don’t like those vaccines because you view them as hopelessly “contaminated” with the “evil” of abortion, then take the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine! Neither are “contaminated” this way (nor will they scramble your DNA).
RNA vaccines are a truly huge advance in vaccine manufacturing because they allow much more rapid development of vaccines and eliminate a lot of messy issues with manufacturing. (Seriously, eggs are still used to manufacture some vaccines.) In theory, a new vaccine could be developed just by inserting a different mRNA into the same lipid nanoparticles used for the COVID-19 vaccines, without the need to start at the beginning for approval, given that the lipid nanoparticles have already been tested. One other advantages is that such vaccines shut down the attempts of antivaxxers to co-opt the opposition of some religions to abortion in the service of their propaganda.
Happy holidays, all, and Orac will return sometime next week.