Biologist-priest affirms: some Covid vaccines use cell lines from aborted fetus

COVID VACCINE. Filipino professor of biology and theology in the United States Rev. Nicanor Austriaco weighs in the ethical considerations of some newly developed vaccines. Photo taken from dominicanfriars.org

“For many Filipinos this will be a controversial moral choice.”

Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, a Filipino professor of biology and theology in the United States, said AstraZeneca and Gamaleya COVID-19 vaccine candidates were developed with cell lines obtained from a fetal abortion in 1972 in the Netherlands.

“For the [AstraZeneca] and the Sputnik V vaccines both have scientific and ethical considerations. Scientific because there’s uncertainty with regards to their safety and efficacy, and ethical because of their use of the HEK 293 fetal cell lines that have a provenance in an abortion in 1973 [sic],” he said.

He added that said vaccines were “heavily reliant” on them.

Major news agencies disproved a viral Facebook video last month falsely claiming that a lung tissue of an aborted male fetus is in the AstraZeneca vaccine.

It is true, however, that “Foetal cell lines are used to develop vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines,” according to a Reuters article, “but the vaccine goes through a purification process before delivery and these cells do not form a component of the vaccine.”

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had urged the government to focus on other “morally non-controversial” vaccines, Austriaco said.

But interestingly, the Catholic Church in Ireland in a statement on Wednesday said that it is “morally permissible” for Catholics to accept such vaccines “if a more ethically alternative is not readily available to them.”

Austriaco recommended “safer, more efficient, and non-controversial” Pfizer and Moderna vaccines—recently shown to be 90 and 94 percent effective, respectively—be procured for early deployment but only in Metro Manila, to avoid storage and distribution challenges.

The visiting professor in University of Santo Tomas added China’s Sinovac vaccines be “preferred” for early and later deployment for the rest of the country.

The United Kingdom’s AstraZeneca vaccine showed an average 70 percent effectiveness (jumping to 90 percent when an initial half-dose then a full dose was given) while Russia’s Gamaleya vaccine claimed 92 percent effectiveness, but has yet to submit proof.

As of November 24, there are eleven novel candidates currently in Phase III clinical trials where effectiveness and safety are being confirmed by testing a larger population.

Among the eleven, the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are under trials in the US and may be granted early approval this year.

Dr. Napoleon Arevalo, the Director of the Disease Prevention and Control Bureau of the Department of Health (DOH), said the government is in “advanced stages of negotiations” in procuring the vaccines and that we may be having vaccines by the first quarter of next year.

Vaccine hesitancy

When asked if he thinks religious Filipinos will cooperate when the vaccines arrive, Austriaco, recollecting the Dengvaxia controversy, said the poor will be “very wary”.

“It is going to have to be by example rather than by words. People are going to believe it when other people get the vaccine […] Here in the Philippines we need rich famous actors, actresses, politicians to receive the vaccine in order to demonstrate to the ordinary Filipino citizen that the vaccine is safe and doable,” he said.

“The perception is that these vaccines were rushed [and therefore] unsafe. But this is not the case, they were rushed in that the process was accelerated but no shortcuts were made. The data is very good,” he added.

The online webinar, titled “The COVID-19 Vaccine Promise: Where are we in the vaccine race?”, was organized by the Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC) of the Ateneo de Manila University and the Department of Science and Technology – Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD).

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