Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 70(3) August 2020


Coronavirus and vaccine development

Author - Adrian TreloarThe world remains gripped by the Coronavirus pandemic. As I write this piece, we are re-entering lockdown with rapidly rising case numbers across Europe. We are supposed to be very scared, although oddly, many are not. Schools are open, social distancing cannot be seen outside of school and pubs are open at least till 10pm. But families may not meet one another. Informal support net-works for young mothers are curtailed. It is illegal to visit the home of a young mother to offer help and support. A family of four children faces fines if anyone else comes into their home because that breaches the “rule of six”. The Good Samaritan is almost being asked to walk past the traveller who is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. And a key answer to this is a vaccine.

It turns out that the vaccine is being developed on aborted cell lines. Many have asked myself and colleagues about this. Many object to being offered a vaccine based upon an aborted cell line. I have previously written about the ethics of Measles Mumps and Rubella vaccines [1]. While I encourage parents to accept that vaccine (albeit with reluctance and some protest perhaps), it appears very unfortunate that new vaccines are still being developed on aborted cell lines. Obviously we want the best and safest vaccine, but is that really requiring aborted cell lines?

In September, the UK Government consulted on its plans for mass vaccination being done before the vaccine is licensed and for the administration of the vaccine to be done by non-medics and non-nurses with minimal training. Panic and safety make poor bedfellows. You can see one response to that consultation in this journal [2].

It is, of course, clear that as the vaccine offered will be based on aborted cell lines, many good people who respect and value life will be reluctant to accept it.

One of our friends had volunteered to be part of the Phase 2 trials of the vaccine. Hearing about the cell line she wrote raising her concerns. She noted that “it says in the blurb that the vaccine cell line comes from a chimp”. So she wrote to the Principal Investigator of the COVID Vaccine Trial Team at Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust as follows

Dear Dr ###
COV002 vaccine study: 56-69 age group A few months ago, I volunteered for the COVD-19 vaccine trials, and someone from your department contacted me last week. Since applying to act as a volunteer, however, I have learnt that the new ChAdOx1 nCov-19 vaccine is derived from a cell line that uses tissue from an electively aborted human foetus - HEK-293. I cannot support the development of a vaccine that has involved the killing of an unborn child, however long ago. While it would be permissible to be inoculated with the vaccine if there were no alternative, actually to foster its development is a step further that I am not prepared to take. (I am not sure whether the MenACWY ‘active control’ vaccine also derives from a foetal tissue cell line.)

It may be, of course, that I have been misinformed, and that the vaccine has been prepared in an ethical manner. If this is the case, I apologise. There would then be nothing on my part to prevent me from participating in the trial.

I look forward to hearing from you.
With best wishes, Yours sincerely,

She was also rung by a nurse. Our friend said thought the “nurse was clearly not pleased when I raised the issue with her! She says she'd get a Dr to call me, but I said I wanted a response to my letter in writing. She was a bit patronising - obviously thought they'd got a right one! She thought I was confused; I told her that I may be medically but not morally!

The written reply stated that:

“Many thanks for your letter. You are correct that viral vectored vaccines in general are prepared using HEK293 cells. In the specific case of ChAdOx1 it requires cell lines to be prepared (these can be HEK2893 and their derivatives or similar cell lines such as Per.C6. I am afraid that we do not have an alternative vaccine available and understand therefore that you will not be volunteering in the COV002 trial.

Best Wishes
Trial Principle Investigator.

You will deduce from the reply that our friend decided that she should not support research into a new vaccine based upon aborted cell lines. Surely, now, we should be asking for alternatives. The learned article describing cell lines for Dr/Fr Michael Jarmulowicz is important reading in this issue.

Many of us may well have thought that the issue of aborted cell vaccines had been sorted out when it was discussed nationally over 30 years ago. In a decision not all were happy about, MMR was accepted by the Church but the Church remained clear that it objected to the use of aborted cell lines, especially for new vaccine development. And the Church appealed for new ethical vaccines to be developed. But in fact, and very rightly, a new generation of people who value life are abhorred by the reality that when vaccines are made, no alternatives are given. The issue has not gone away.

Writing to the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health Bishop Sherrington sought clarification from the department about the potential sources of a vaccination. He sought reassurance that the department will promote research into a vaccine derived from a source which would not be ethically problematic for Catholics and which does not involve moral complicity in abortion. Such a vaccine “would appeal to the conscience of Catholics and others who hold strong views against abortion” [4].

What is worrying is that while the Bishops conclude by stating (not unreasonably) that the faithful may prudently and in conscience accept such a vaccine, the Bishops go on to say that “If the choice is made not to receive this vaccination, then the person must make other provision to mitigate the risk of harm to the life or health of others and to his or her own life and health.”[4]

Problematically, the Bishops placed duties upon the person objecting to the vaccine while asking nothing of those offering an objectionable vaccine. As health professionals we know that consent requires that we make reasonable accommoda-tions for those who object to treatments that we offer. Surely we should expect the state to strive to accommodate people who refuse aborted cell line vaccines.

It is now time for those who make vaccines to stop using aborted cell lines and to offer alternatives.


  1. Treloar A, (2019) Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccines: the ethics and the need for an alternative vaccine. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 69(3): August 2019
  2. Response to consultation Catholic Medical Quarterly, Volume 70 (4) November. Page 25
  3. Jarmulowicz M. (2020) Vaccine Cell Lines – Their history and basic information. Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 70 (4) November. Page11
  4. COVID-19 and Vaccination: Statement from the Bishops Conference of England and Wales.
    See page 14