No, the New COVID Vaccine Is Not "Morally Compromised"

As the proportion of vaccinated elderly people increases, family reunions become possible again -- but not if people reject the vaccines on religious grounds.

The approval of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has been heralded as a major advance. A single-dose vaccine that is highly efficacious at removing the ability of the virus to cause severe disease, hospitalization, and death (even in the face of variants) is nothing less than pathbreaking. Anyone who is offered this vaccine should take it. However, one group advises its adherents to preferentially request the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines instead in the quest for morally "irreproachable" vaccines.

Is this group concerned about lower numerical efficacy in clinical trials? No, it seems that they have deemed the J&J vaccine "morally compromised". The group is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and if something is "morally compromised" it is surely not the vaccine. (Notably Pope Francis has not taken such a stance).

At issue is a cell line used to manufacture the vaccine. Specifically, a cell line used to grow the adenovirus vector used in the vaccine. The purpose of the vector is to carry a genetic snippet of the coronavirus spike protein into the body, like a Trojan Horse ferrying in an enemy combatant, in order to safely trigger an immune response without any chance of causing COVID-19 itself.

It is my hope that the country's 50 million Catholics do not heed the U.S. Conference of Bishops' potentially deadly advice and instead obtain whichever vaccine is available to them as soon as possible.

The cell line of the vector, known as PER.C6, was derived from a fetus that was aborted in 1985. This cell line is prolific in biotechnology, as are other fetal-derived cell lines such as HEK-293 (human embryonic kidney), used in the manufacture of the Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Indeed, fetal cell lines are used in the manufacture of critical vaccines directed against pathogens such as hepatitis A, rubella, rabies, chickenpox, and shingles and were used to test the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines (which, accordingly, the U.S. Conference of Bishops deem to only raise moral "concerns").

As such, fetal cell lines from abortions are a common and critical component of biotechnology that we all rely on to improve our health. Such cell lines have been used to help find treatments for cancer, Ebola, and many other diseases.

Dr. Andrea Gambotto, a vaccine scientist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, explained to Science magazine last year why fetal cells are so important to vaccine development: "Cultured [nonhuman] animal cells can produce the same proteins, but they would be decorated with different sugar molecules, which—in the case of vaccines—runs the risk of failing to evoke a robust and specific immune response." Thus, the fetal cells' human origins are key to their effectiveness.

So why the opposition to this life-saving technology, especially in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in over a century? How could such a technology be "morally compromised" when morality, as I understand it, is a code of values to guide human life on Earth with the purpose of enhancing well-being?

By any measure, the J&J vaccine accomplishes that, since human life, not embryonic or fetal life, is the standard of value. An embryo or fetus in the earlier stages of development, while harboring the potential to grow into a human being, is not the moral equivalent of a person. Thus, creating life-saving medical technology using cells that would have otherwise been destroyed is not in conflict with a proper moral code. To me, it is nihilistic to oppose these vaccines on the grounds cited by the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

Reason, the rational faculty, is the human means of knowledge. It is what one should wield when approaching a scientific or health issue. Appeals from clerics, devoid of any need to tether their principles to this world, should not have any bearing on one's medical decision-making.

In the Dark Ages, the Catholic Church opposed all forms of scientific inquiry, even castigating science and curiosity as the "lust of the eyes": One early Middle Ages church father reveled in his rejection of reality and evidence, proudly declaring, "I believe because it is absurd." This organization, which tyrannized scientists such as Galileo and murdered the Italian cosmologist Bruno, today has shown itself to still harbor anti-science sentiments in its ranks.

It is my hope that the country's 50 million Catholics do not heed the U.S. Conference of Bishops' potentially deadly advice and instead obtain whichever vaccine is available to them as soon as possible. When judged using the correct standard of value, vaccines using fetal cell lines in their development are an unequivocal good -- while those who attempt to undermine them deserve a different category altogether.

Amesh A. Adalja

Dr. Adalja is focused on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity. He has served on US government panels tasked with developing guidelines for the treatment of plague, botulism, and anthrax in mass casualty settings and the system of care for infectious disease emergencies, and as an external advisor to the New York City Health and Hospital Emergency Management Highly Infectious Disease training program, as well as on a FEMA working group on nuclear disaster recovery. Dr. Adalja is an Associate Editor of the journal Health Security. He was a coeditor of the volume Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, a contributing author for the Handbook of Bioterrorism and Disaster Medicine, the Emergency Medicine CorePendium, Clinical Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple, UpToDate's section on biological terrorism, and a NATO volume on bioterrorism. He has also published in such journals as the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Emerging Infectious Diseases, and the Annals of Emergency Medicine. He is a board-certified physician in internal medicine, emergency medicine, infectious diseases, and critical care medicine. Follow him on Twitter: @AmeshAA

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