Coronavirus Vaccines and the Use of Aborted Fetal Cells

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Thematic : Biomedical research / Medical research

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Published on : 14/07/2021

Author / Source : European Institute of Bioethics

At a time of accelerated development of vaccines against Covid-19, being well-informed is important, especially regarding the ethics of how these vaccines are developed and then produced and tested. The potential use of aborted fetuses' cell lines at any stage of the process is key for the ethical discernment. The Charlotte Lozier Institute in the United States has published, on the basis of a rigorous analysis of the scientific literature and the results of clinical trials, a detailed report of pharmaceutical companies that do or do not use such ethically controversial cell lines. The aim is to help the reader make informed choices regarding vaccines against the Coronavirus. 

Let us first recall what a fetal cell line consists in. It is obtained by taking a cell from a fetus (in this case, aborted) and multiplying it into several identical cells. These cells can be grown and multiplied for several decades, creating "cell lines", which are often used in scientific experiments. Some fetal cell lines date back decades and are used in the development of new vaccines. These are in particular the HEK293 and PER.C6 lines. The use of these cells does not require new abortions, but it is based on abortions that took place in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 

The question arises as to whether these fetal cell lines are absolutely necessary for the development of vaccines, specifically the Covid-19 vaccine. The answer is no: it is possible to develop vaccines ethically, either using no cells or using animal, chicken egg or yeast cells. And several pharmaceutical companies are doing this. 

We need then to understand the different steps in the development in which cell lines from aborted fetuses may be used.

 

Last update : 14/07/2021

1. Design and development phase: it consists in the conceptualization of the vaccine, preparatory experiments, and specifications as to how the vaccine will be produced. 

Pharmaceutical companies and research institutes that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in this phase: 

- Altimmune (USA)  

- Astra Zeneca & University of Oxford (UK, USA) 

- CanSino Biologics, Inc. Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, Academy of Military Medical Sciences, PLA of China (China) 

- Gamaleya Research Institute ("Sputnik V") (Russia) 

- ImmunityBio and NantKwest (USA) 

- Janssen Research & Development, Inc. Johnson & Johnson (USA) 

- ReiThera (Italy)  

- Vaxart (USA) 

- Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical/Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (China) 

- University of Pittsburgh (USA) 

-Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) (USA) 

-Imperial College London (UK) 

- Institut Pasteur and Themis and Merck (USA, France) 

- Providence Therapeutics (Canada) 

- Sanofi Pasteur and Translate Bio (USA, France) 

 

2. Production phase: the final vaccine is produced. 

Pharmaceutical companies and research institutes using cell lines from aborted fetuses at this stage: 

- Altimmune (USA) 

- Astra Zeneca University of Oxford (UK, USA) 

- CanSino Biologics, Inc. Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, Academy of Military Medical Sciences, PLA of China (China) 

- Gamaleya Research Institute ("Sputnik V") (Russia) 

- ImmunityBio and NantKwest (USA) 

- Janssen Research & Development, Inc. Johnson & Johnson Vaxart (USA)  

- Vaxart (USA) 

- Rega Institute, KU Leuven (Belgium) 

-ReiThera (Italy)  

- University of Pittsburgh (USA) 

-Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) (USA) 

 

3. Confirmatory lab test phase, before being widely distributed. 

Pharmaceutical companies and research institutes using cell lines from aborted fetuses at this stage: 

- Altimmune (USA) 

- Astra Zeneca University of Oxford (UK, USA) 

- CanSino Biologics, Inc. Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, Academy of Military Medical Sciences, PLA of China (China) 

- Gamaleya Research Institute ("Sputnik V") (Russia) 

- ImmunityBio and NantKwest (USA) 

- Sinovac Biotech Co., Ltd. (China) 

- Janssen Research & Development, Inc. Johnson & Johnson Vaxart (USA)  

-ReiThera (Italy)  

- Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biopharmaceutical/Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (China) 

- Medicago (Canada) 

- Novavax (USA) 

- Vaxart (USA) 

- Moderna, Inc. avec le National Institute of Health (USA) 

- Pfizer and BioNTech (USA, Germany) 

- Providence Therapeutics (Canada) 

- Sanofi Pasteur and Translate Bio (USA, France) 

- Inovio Pharmaceuticals (USA) 

- Arcturus Therapeutics (USA) 

-Imperial College London (UK) 

- Institut Pasteur and Themis and Merck (USA, France) 

- Clover Biopharmaceuticals, Inc. (China) 

- COVAXX and United Biomedical (USA, Taiwan) 

- Sanofi and GSK Protein Sciences (USA, France) 

- University of Pittsburgh (USA) 

-Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) (USA) 

 

The pharmaceutical companies not using fetal cell lines in any of the three steps are (*in orange : information still missing): 

- Beijing Institute of Biological Products/ Sinopharm (China) 

- Wuhan Institute of Biological Products/ Sinopharm (China) 

- Bharat Biotech/ Indian Council of Medical Research (India) 

- Institute of Medical Biology, Chinese Academy of Medical Science 

- John Paul II Medical Research Institute (USA) 

- Valneva and Dynavax (France, UK, USA) 

- Shenzhen Geno-immune Medical Institute (China) 

- Merck and IAVI (USA) 

- Federal Budgetary Research Institution State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology “Vektor” 

- Sorrento (USA) 

- University of Queensland and CSL Ltd. (Australia) 

- CureVac (Germany) 

- Genexine (Korea) 

- Kentucky BioProcessing, Inc. (USA) 

- Symvivo Corporation (Canada) 

- Israel Institute for Biological Research (Israel) 

-Laboratorio Avi-Mex (Mexico) 

-Meissa Vaccines, INC. (USA) 

- Osaka University, AnGes, Takara Bio (Japan) 

- Zydus Cadila (India) 

 

Ethical discernment concerning the proposed vaccines will be based on different elements: 

Whether alternatives to vaccines developed on the basis of these cell lines from aborted fetuses exist or not: if ethically developed vaccines exist and are accessible, they must be given priority. 

The degree of distance, in time but especially in responsibility, between the abortion in question and the patient who is vaccinated. For example, the patient's responsibility is small compared to that of the researcher who uses these cell lines and thus encourages the production of similar lines. 

- The phase in the development process in which fetal cell lines were used: if the vaccine was produced thanks to these fetal cell lines (phase 2), then its use is actually encouraging the reproduction of fetal cells. However, cooperation is more remote when the pharmaceutical company has only tested some copies of the vaccine with fetal cells (phase 3). 


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