Cells from human foetuses are important for developing vaccines – but they’re not an ingredient
March 27, 2021 12.58am AEDT
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a statement advising Catholics to opt for the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, if possible, because human embryonic cells collected from an aborted foetus were used to develop the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Using human embryonic cells from aborted foetuses in vaccine development has been controversial for some faiths. Given the severity of the pandemic and the necessity that a significant percentage of the population must be vaccinated to protect public health, most faith communities have publicly stated it is morally acceptable to receive any of the authorised vaccinations, even those that used cells that have been replicated from those originally taken from aborted foetuses in their development. These replicated cells are known as cell lines.
How it works
Modern vaccination has come a long way since 1796 when Edward Jenner infected his first “patient” with cowpox to prevent smallpox. One modern vaccination strategy is to hack viruses to deliver immunity. The adenovirus, a virus that can cause the common cold and other respiratory illness, has been re-engineered to create vaccines, including the Johnson & Johnson, Oxford/AstraZeneca, CanSino and Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccines.
The adenovirus is stripped of its original instructions, or genes, that trigger disease, and replaced with blueprints for a small part of the coronavirus – the spike protein. The body’s immune system recognises the spike protein as foreign and makes antibodies that then protect against future coronavirus infection.
Viruses are not alive and need to infect cells to propagate. To make enough re-engineered adenovirus for vaccines, cells that closely resemble the target of vaccination (humans) are needed. This is one reason scientists use human cells to create adenovirus-based vaccines. The adenovirus used in these vaccines also tends to infect human cells better than other animal cell types, making it easier to create more copies of the virus in human cells. For this, embryonic cell lines are sometimes used.
Two embryonic cell lines have been used to develop COVID-19 vaccines: human embryonic kidney cells called HEK 293 and human embryonic retinal cells called PER.C6. The PER.C6 cell line is from an elective abortion in the Netherlands in 1985, and the HEK 293 cell line comes from an undisclosed source (either spontaneous miscarriage or elective abortion) in the Netherlands in about 1972.
Johnson & Johnson used PER.C6 cells in their COVID-19 vaccine development, and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine used HEK 293 cells. CanSino Biologics and Gamaleya Research Institute’s Sputnik V vaccines have also used HEK 293 cells.
Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech used HEK 293 cells in their proof-of-concept tests to see effectively take up the genetic instructions contained in these vaccines and produce the required spike protein. But human embryonic cell lines were not used to make either company’s final vaccine.
HEK 293 and PER.C6 cell lines have been genetically altered to include the part of the adenovirus instructions that trigger replication of adenoviruses. This allows the production of a large amount of the final vaccination product and allows the removal of the adenoviral replication instructions in the vaccine.
This prevents further replication of the adenovirus in the patient. So the delivered dose of adenovirus infects a relatively controlled number of host cells, which create a limited amount of coronavirus spike protein, enough for the body to mount an immune response.
After a large enough dose of coronavirus spike-containing adenoviruses is collected, the adenovirus is purified and isolated from the embryonic cell material for inclusion in the vaccine. No embryonic cells are included in the actual vaccine.
Are the vaccines made with fetal cells?
mRNA Vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna)
No, the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any aborted fetal cells. Fetal cell lines are not the same as fetal tissue. Fetal cell lines are cells that grow in a laboratory. They descend from cells taken from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s. Those individual cells from the 1970s and 1980s have since multiplied into many new cells over the past four or five decades, creating fetal cell lines. Current fetal cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue.
For the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, no fetal cell lines were used to produce or manufacture the vaccine, and they are not inside the injection you receive from your doctor/nurse. Fetal cells may have been used to test efficacy and/or proof of concept (see sources below).
Johnson & Johnson
The Johnson and Johnson vaccine did use fetal cell cultures, specifically PER.C6 (a retinal cell line that was isolated from a terminated fetus in 1985), in order to produce and manufacture the vaccine.
COVID-19 vaccines and aborted fetuses
Posted on by FactCheckNI
UPDATE: This article was updated on 27 July 2021, in response to a query about whether an mRNA vaccine by CureVac uses fetal cell lines in any stage of its development. It does not. This article was previously updated on 2 February 2021 to explain about the use of MRC-5 and HEK 293 cell lines in the design and testing of some vaccines.
By December 2020, there were 78 COVID-19 vaccines in development. Thirteen were in third stage trials, and seven already had limited approval for use. The Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine was the first to be approved for use in the UK on 2 December 2020.
Concerns have been expressed on social media that COVID-19 vaccines are made from aborted fetuses, and some people object to the vaccines on religious and ethical grounds.
An mRNA vaccine is a new type of synthetic vaccine. As Pfizer explains, mRNA vaccines are made from a DNA template in a lab, rather than the traditional method of being made in cells. The vaccine is then synthetically produced.
The Moderna vaccine is also synthetic. Moderna began by designing a gene sequence on a computer. Damian Garde explains how Chinese scientists, after isolating the virus from patients, posted the genetic sequence for COVID-19 online. Moderna and BioNtech used software to tell them “what chemicals to put together and in what order”.
The COVID-19 vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca in collaboration with Oxford University has generated the most debate.
In November 2020, it was widely claimed on social media, including this Facebook post with over 160,000 views, that the AstraZeneca vaccine contains MRC-5 cells from lung tissue of a male fetus which was aborted in the 1960s.
This specific claim has been fact checked by Associated Press, Full Fact, Politifact, Reuters and Snopes and found to be false. However, the MRC-5 cell line was used in the preclinical testing of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
AstraZeneca did use the HEK 293 cell line to manufacture its vaccine (and Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna in the design of their vaccines). These cells originate from a fetus which was aborted in the Netherlands in 1973. The fetus was aborted legally at the time for other reasons, and not for the purposes of vaccine research. Alex Kasprak at Snopes has summarised the cell line’s origin story, which began with a Canadian scientist’s research into cancer.
It is also important to understand how cells are used. It is common for vaccines to be grown in labs using cultures. Writing in Science, Meredith Wadman describes cell cultures as “miniature ‘factories’” in which the virus is propagated. After the viruses are grown, they are purified and cell culture material is removed. As Professor Helen Petousis Harris explains to AAP FactCheck, no cells of any kind are part of the final vaccine formulation.
Religiously conservative think tanks such as the Lozier Institute have expressed their opinion that lab sequenced mRNA vaccines, and specifically the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, do not pose an ethical problem for them, as they are synthetically produced.
- No COVID-19 vaccine contains cells from aborted fetuses.
- A replica cell line from a fetus aborted in 1973 was used to develop the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine. However, the vaccine itself does not contain fetal cells.
- New mRNA vaccines, such as those being developed by Pfizer and Moderna, are synthetic vaccines, sequenced on a computer in a lab, and do not use fetal cell lines in their production.
This article was originally published on 7 December 2020.
You asked, we answered: Do the COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal cells?
Published August 18, 2021
This article was originally published December 28, 2020. It was updated on March 2, 2021, to include information about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and on August 18, 2021, to include a personal note from Dr. Lawler and further clarify some parts of the article that were causing confusion.
Do the COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal cells?
Answer from infectious disease expert and practicing Catholic James Lawler, MD
No, the COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any aborted fetal cells. However, fetal cell lines – cells grown in a laboratory based on aborted fetal cells collected generations ago – were used in testing during research and development of the mRNA vaccines, and during production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Now, let’s break down the science
Fetal cell lines are cells that grow in a laboratory. They descend from cells taken from abortions in the 1970s and 1980s.
Those individual cells from the 1970s and 1980s have since multiplied into many new cells over the past four or five decades, creating the fetal cell lines I mentioned above. Current fetal cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue. They do not contain any tissue from a fetus.
Vaccine makers may use these fetal cell lines during the following two phases:
- Research and development
- Production and manufacturing
When it comes to the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, fetal cell line HEK 293 was used during the research and development phase. All HEK 293 cells are descended from tissue taken from a 1973 abortion that took place in the Netherlands. Using fetal cell lines to test the effectiveness and safety of medications is common practice, because they provide a consistent and well-documented standard.
For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, fetal cell lines were used in the production and manufacturing stage. To make the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, scientists infect PER.C6 fetal cell lines to grow the adenovirus vector. (Learn more about how viral vector vaccines work.) All PER.C6 cells used to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are descended from tissue taken from a 1985 abortion that took place in the Netherlands. This cell line is used because it is a well-studied industry standard for safe and reliable production of viral vector vaccines.