ATLANTA—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the new smallpox vaccine ordered by the government to guard against potential bioterrorist attacks may be produced using the tissue of an aborted baby.
Press officer Nicole Coffin said Nov. 13 that the new vaccine will be produced using tissue from a monkey kidney or a human lung. She identified the human lung tissue as MRC-5, which was taken from an aborted baby boy in 1966 and has since been used to produce the polio, rabies, hepatitis-A, and chickenpox vaccines commonly in use in the United States.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced Oct. 17 that President Bush has set aside $1.5 billion in his $20 billion emergency relief budget request to fight bioterrorism. Thompson said that $509 million of that will fund the development and acquisition of 250 million doses of a new smallpox vaccine. Added to the existing stockpile, that would be enough to inoculate every man, woman, and child in the country if necessary.
Children of God for Life, a Florida pro-life group focusing on human embryonic stem cell research and vaccines “tainted” by connection to abortion, issued a press release Nov. 1, warning that the new vaccine may be produced using MRC-5 and calling on the public to write to Thompson requesting an ethical alternative.
“Consider the outcome if the only vaccine we have next year is derived from aborted fetal tissue and hundreds of thousands of Americans refuse it,” read the release. “Ask [the government] to consider the moral consciences of hundreds of thousands of Americans who have already voiced their objection to the present vaccines derived from fetal tissue.”
Last year, an intense debate occurred among Catholic pro-lifers on whether it is morally permissible to receive a vaccine produced with aborted fetal tissue. Many moral theologians and philosophers—including prominent pro-lifers such as Msgr. William Smith of St. Joseph's Seminary in New York, Prof. Janet Smith of the University of Dallas, and Richard Doer-flinger, associate director of policy development for the pro-life secretariat of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—agreed that while it is immoral to use tissue from a deliberately aborted baby to produce a vaccine, receiving such a vaccine is a form of “remote material cooperation” with evil, and is therefore permissible under certain circumstances.
Most of these experts emphasized, however, that alternate vaccines should be used where available, and that no new vaccines should be developed using fetal tissue. Pro-lifers say that is even more important in the case of the anti-terror smallpox vaccines, as they will be purchased with taxpayers’ dollars.
Said Children of God for Life executive director Debi Vinnedge, “No matter what your opinion is, whether it's morally acceptable or not [to receive a “tainted” vaccine] … [Catholic authorities] all have agreed we have to have alternatives and we should not be producing future vaccines in this manner.”
Added Vinnedge, “We must seek alternatives and let the manufacturers know that we don't want any new products developed from it so that we're never put in this situation to start with.”
There is evidence that a new smallpox vaccine made using animal tissues would be just as effective as one made with fetal tissue. The government's existing stockpile was made using calf skin cells, and the existing doses will form part of the larger stockpile the government hopes to have in place by the end of next year.
Moreover, in an article in the November-December 2001 issue of the CDC publication Emerging Infectious Diseases, government scientists list human tissue as just one of the possible “substrates” which might be used to produce a new vaccine.
The Washington Post reported Nov. 11 that three large pharmaceutical companies—Acambis PLC, Merck and Co., and GlaxoSmithKline—have made the final cut in bidding to produce the new vaccine. Acambis PLC already holds a contract with the government to produce 54 million doses (recently increased from 40 million ordered to add to the smallpox vaccine stockpile before Sept. 11).
The bids are shrouded in secrecy at the moment, but the Postreported Oct. 28 that Acambis is producing its vaccine using “human fibrob-lasts,” referring to MRC-5. According to Children of God for Life, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline already produce other vaccines using tissue from aborted babies. Sources indicate the government would prefer to hire more than one company to produce the new smallpox vaccine.
Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Hall told the Register Nov. 13 that the government hopes to award the contract or contracts “very soon.” He refused to comment on the proposals currently being considered, but seemed to indicate that the government is aware of concerns about the use of fetal tissue.
Said Hall, “I think that the people involved in the negotiations are aware of the various issues that could come up with certain processes.”
David Curtin writes from Toronto.