WASHINGTON — To prepare for a potential bioterrorist attack, the Department of Health and Human Services in late November ordered an additional 155 million doses of smallpox vaccine from British-based Acambis Inc. And in a major victory for pro-life activists, Acambis announced that it would not be using tissue from aborted children to produce the vaccine.
Baxter Inc., based in Deerfield, Ill., has a contract with Acambis to help produce the vaccines.
Last year the Clinton administration signed a contract with Acambis to receive 40 million doses of smallpox vaccine by the end of 2002. The doses manufactured under that contract use “MRC-5” tissue, derived from aborted children, but the new vaccines will use “Vero” lines derived from animal sources instead.
“It is an outstanding move by Acambis/Baxter; thousands of people had protested the use of MRC-5 in the smallpox vaccine,” Debi Vinnedge, director of Children of God for Life, told the Register. Vinnedge's organization has spear-headed the campaign to persuade manufacturers to refrain from manufacturing vaccines with abortion-derived tissue.
Pro-life activists put pressure on Acambis and the federal government to not use aborted children to produce the anti-bioterrorism vaccines. A Register article last month helped publicize these efforts.
“We wrote to Acambis directly, as did our supporters in London,” said Vinnedge. “We told them we knew multiple contracts could be awarded by our government and we would support whatever company chose to use non-fetal tissue as the product of choice in America.”
She noted that her organization already had 440,000 people protesting the existing vaccines made from aborted children. Hundreds of those activists wrote letters to Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services.
Bill Hall, a spokesman at Health and Human Services, confirmed to the Register that the vaccines made by Acambis under this year's contract would be made using animal tissues. “In the first contract they used MRC-5 lines. In this contract they're using Vero lines,” Hall said.
He said that when the government asked for bids for the contract, it didn't demand that companies find alternatives to MRC-5.
“We did not specify a cell line,” said Hall. When asked if the government had made cell lines a factor in deciding the contract, Hall replied, “I cannot discuss the specifics.”
The use of aborted children to manufacture vaccines has raised thorny ethical concerns for Catholics, said Cathy Cleaver, the U.S. bishops’ pro-life activities spokeswoman.
“We have visited as a nation this question of refusing the old smallpox vaccines,” Cleaver said. “The answer is that Catholic teaching does not require Catholics to refuse the virus.”
During a controversy that began in late 1999 over the issue of the morality of using smallpox vaccines manufactured with abortion-derived tissues, a number of prominent Catholic moral theologians and prolifers said that using the vaccines was not intrinsically immoral. But they also said that new vaccines that don't use such tissues should be sought, to avoid placing people in the situation of having to make the choice.
With the government now stockpiling vaccines manufactured both ways, Cleaver wondered whether Americans would be allowed to know the dose they were intended to receive was developed using aborted tissue. “The question may become: What vaccine is this one?” she said.
Still, Cleaver expressed gratitude that Acambis will not use MRC-5 for the new contract.
“It's really good; it's surprising,” she said. “Anytime you invoke the issue of health, people lose sight of the means.” She noted the recent debate over stem cell research and the current debate over human cloning as examples.
Acambis did not return calls for comment. Other companies continue to use aborted tissue to manufacture vaccines.
In a statement to the Register, Merck & Co. said that many of its vaccines are “developed in human diploid cell lines.”
“Human diploid cell lines, which are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and maintained under strict federal guidelines, originated from two legal, therapeutically indicated abortion in the 1960s,” the corporation said in its statement.
The company added, “These abortions were not undertaken with the intent of producing vaccines. No new fetal tissue is needed to produce cell lines to make vaccines, now or in the future.”
Vinnedge said that if Catholics had been more vigilant in the past, companies like Merck might never have used aborted children to manufacture vaccines in the first place.
“Had this information been made public 30 years ago when aborted fetal cell lines MRC-5 and WI-38 were being introduced, it is doubtful we would have vaccines today that are grown on these cultures,” she said. “But those producing the vaccines have perceived a lack of protest as public acceptance.”
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.