Is foetal tissue used in the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines?

On March 3, 2021, a doctors’ lobby released a press statement titled “Stopping Ravages and Loss of Human Life from Covid-19”.

The lobby under the umbrella of Catholic Doctors Association, in a nine-page document advising church members not to accept the Covid-19 vaccine, claimed companies were using aborted foetuses in the process of manufacturing the vaccines.

The statement came just a day Kenya received more than one million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines.

The group took issue with the AstraZeneca vaccine which has largely been preferred by the government.  It said the vaccine is manufactured from genetically modified organisms and lab-grown cells that descend from cells taken in the 1980s from the tissue of aborted foetuses.

Their statement drew mixed reactions which may have contributed to resistance and slow uptake of the vaccines in the country.

This, even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) came out to affirm to members of the public that the vaccine manufactured by India’s Serum Institute had been reviewed and found to be safe.

“We would also like to reiterate and assure the public that this vaccine and others recently developed are safe. They have indeed been developed and produced in record time, but the regulatory and scientific reviews of the vaccines have not been compromised,” WHO said in a statement.

As a result, The Standard took an initiative to establish whether the vaccines are developed using the foetal tissue.

As of June 5, 2021, the Ministry of Health reported that 975, 265 people had been vaccinated against the disease.

Out of the 172,325 positive cases reported since the first case in March 2020, some 117, 502 patients had recovered while 3,264 had died.

A day after the doctors issued the statement, The US Conference of Catholic Bishops came out and stated that “When ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available … it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process. However, if one can choose among equally safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.”

We reached out to Dr Brian Kimani from Doctors on Call who said the manufacture of the Covid vaccine utilises foetal cell lines as opposed to foetal tissue.

According to him, some of the Covid-19 vaccines being studied in clinical trials use cells originally isolated from foetal tissue (often referred to as foetal cells) in vaccine development or manufacturing.

He said the research does not require foetal cells from new abortions but rather uses existing historic cell lines that are many decades old.

These historical foetal cell lines were derived in the 1960s and 1970s from two elective abortions unrelated to vaccine development.

They have been used to create vaccines for diseases such as hepatitis A, rubella, and rabies.

The doctor said the foetal cell lines being used to produce some of the potential Covid-19 vaccines are from HEK-293: A kidney cell line that was isolated from a terminated fetus in 1972 and the PER.C6: A retinal cell line that was isolated from a terminated fetus in 1985.

Kimani said early in the development of mRNA vaccine technology, foetal cells are used to demonstrate how a cell could take up mRNA and produce the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

This is backed up by Nebraska Medicine which says the cells derived from elective abortions have been used since the 1960s to manufacture vaccines, including current vaccines against rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles.

They have also been used to make approved drugs against diseases including haemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cystic fibrosis.

According to WHO, research groups around the world have been working to develop more than 130 types of vaccines against COVID-19, out of which 10 have entered human trials.

Nebraska Medicine states that both the HEK-293 and the PER.C6 cell lines were developed in the lab of molecular biologist Alex van der Eb at Leiden University.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta when he received his  AstraZeneca jab at State House Nairobi.[PSCU]

Dr Kimani said to develop and manufacture some vaccines, scientists working with pharmaceutical companies prefer human cell lines over other cells because viruses need cells to grow, and the viruses tend to grow better in cells from humans than animals (because they infect humans).

Kimani said foetal cells can be used longer than other cell types and that the cells can be maintained at low temperatures allowing scientists to continue using cells lines from decades ago.

The human foetal cells are used as miniature “factories” to generate vast quantities of adenoviruses, disabled so that they cannot replicate, that are used as vehicles to ferry genes from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

An alert by Los Angeles County in the USA indicates that when the adenoviruses are given as a vaccine, recipients’ cells begin to produce proteins from the coronavirus, hopefully triggering a protective immune response.

Nebraska further states that foetal cell lines are not the same as foetal tissue.

The organisation said foetal 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 been multiplied into many new cells over the past four or five decades, creating foetal cell lines.

The current foetal cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue.

They do not contain any tissue from a foetus.

Vaccine makers may use these foetal cell lines in development to identify what works, in confirmation to make sure it works and in production to manufacture a formula that works.

When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for emergency use, neither the Pfizer nor Moderna vaccines used foetal cell lines during the development or production phases.

However, both companies use the foetal cell line HEK 293 in the confirmation phase to ensure the vaccines work.

What are the ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines?

ABC News says both coronavirus jabs use new technologies to train the body's immune system, teaching it to recognise and fight the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) if the virus was to infect the body.

Pfizer uses messenger RNA (mRNA) encased in a lipid layer, which, until recently, had not been approved for use in a human vaccine.

The AstraZeneca option is a viral vector vaccine, which uses a harmless chimpanzee adenovirus to deliver DNA into the cells of patients.

Pfizer's active ingredient

The Pfizer vaccine is 95 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, and it does this using genetic material called mRNA.

mRNA is a standard part of a cell's day-to-day operations. It ferries messages from the cell nucleus, where DNA is stored, to ribosomes, structures in human cells that act as protein-building factories.

When an mRNA vaccine is injected into an arm muscle, the message carried by the mRNA is directed to body cells' ribosomes.

For the mRNA coming from the [Pfizer] vaccine, this will be making the spike protein from SARS-CoV-2. Once the message is given, it self-destructs [and the mRNA degrades], hence it does not hang around.

The mRNA — the active part of the vaccine — is very vulnerable to degradation, which is why it must be stored at super-cold temperatures and encased in a lipid or fat particle (made of four different fats including cholesterol) to protect it.

AstraZeneca's active ingredient

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which also comes in a multi-dose vial, doesn't need to be diluted and is a clear to slightly brown colour.

Oxford University says the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines currently being used to develop the vaccines were started in the 1960s using lung cells taken from two aborted foetuses.

The abortions were legal and agreed to by the mothers, but they were not performed for vaccine development.

With the available data, The Standard concludes that none of the Covid-19 vaccines in development uses foetal cells taken from recent abortions.