MVEC supports all scientific efforts to rapidly develop safe and effective SARS CoV-2 vaccine(s). This includes technology developed over 50 years ago and has been a proven way to support the production of viral vaccines that have saved so many lives around the world.

Background

In the early 1960’s foetal embryo fibroblast cells were first obtained from 2 elective terminations of pregnancy in order to grow vaccine viruses. These same cell lines have continued to grow in laboratory conditions since this time and have been used in the development of various vaccines including rubella, measles, hepatitis A and rabies vaccines.

How is foetal tissue used in vaccine development?

Vaccine viruses are grown within foetal cell lines because they are human and will mimic how viruses will act when infecting a human host. They can be sustained over time and have been shared by multiple vaccine researchers and developers and are clearly outlined to regulatory authorities, such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in America. 

There are three current SARS CoV-2 vaccine candidates that have used this technology as part of their development.  They are the Oxford AstraZeneca (UK); Johnson and Johnson (Jansen research US) and CanSino biologics (China). All of these vaccines are in the class called ‘Virus vectors’ and use an adenovirus (common human virus) to help carry the DNA of the SARS CoV-2 spike protein, the part of the virus researchers are targeting to produce a protective immune response.

Why don’t we try to use vaccines without these foetal embryonic cell lines?

The SARS CoV-2 pipeline is progressing at pandemic speed and it was important to utilise proven technologies to support vaccine development. Replication of viruses in the laboratory can be difficult, so these established platforms, as detailed above, is scientifically justifiable There is also a hypothetical concern for transmission of animal diseases if animal embryonic cell lines were to be used for this purpose.

It is also uncertain how many of the SARS CoV-2 vaccines will be shown to be safe and effective, so given the impact of the pandemic and lives that may be saved by vaccine(s), we should be open to discussing these products and addressing ethics issues that are being raised as part of COVID-19 vaccine readiness planning.

Religious and ethical implications

Even though foetal cells lines are used to grow vaccine viruses, the resultant vaccine does not contain these cells, fragments of these cells, or any DNA recognisable as human. During the manufacturing process, the foetal cells often burst when the vaccine virus grows, and the resulting vaccine virus is purified before being used in the final vaccine product.

In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI as head of the Catholic Church, released a statement in support of using vaccines derived from foetal cell lines, outlining that they “may be considered in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole – especially for pregnant women”. They may be “morally justified as an extrema ratio due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children” [refer to Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human foetuses].

Resources

Authors: Nigel Crawford (Director, SAEFVIC, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute), Rachael McGuire (SAEFVIC Research Nurse, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute), and Georgina Lewis (SAEFVIC Clinical Manager, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute)

Date: August 2020

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Melbourne Vaccine Education Centre (MVEC) staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

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