Vatican Health Conference: A Platform to Combat COVID-19 ‘Vaccine Hesitancy?’

The May 6-8 event features the CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer, as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci and an array of other prominent vaccination advocates.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci talks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on April 13, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci talks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on April 13, 2021, in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla (photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — An upcoming Vatican health conference, titled “Unite to Prevent & Unite to Cure” and co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Cura Foundation, will not only place a significant focus on COVID-19 treatments and prevention but also provide a platform for promoting vaccines produced by large pharmaceutical companies. 

The advocacy of the anti-COVID vaccines was already evident both by the names of some of the 114 speakers taking part in the online May 6-8 health summit as well as some of the grantors and supporters of the conference announced last week. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has led both the Trump and Biden administrations’ response to COVID-19, is a fervent advocate of vaccination, and is scheduled to give the opening talk of the conference entitled “Exploring the Mind, Body & Soul: How Innovation and Novel Delivery Systems Improve Human Health.” 

Also speaking will be Stephane Bancel and Albert Bourla, respectively the CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer, two of the largest anti-COVID-19 vaccine producers, and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, who has also strongly supported inoculation. Another speaker is David Feinberg, vice-president of Google Health, which in January committed $150 million to promote “COVID-19 vaccine education and equitable distribution to underserved communities” as well as further funding to other institutions, including the World Health Organization, in order to promote vaccination. 

Msgr. Tomasz Trafny, the Vatican official organizing the conference, told the Register last week that the Vatican has no budget for the conference, whose funding consequently comes entirely from outside donors. These benefactors and supporters include Moderna, mentioned as a “Key Gold” supporter and grantor of the meeting, Celularity, United Therapeutics, and Sorrento Therapeutics. The conference’s “Key Grantors,” meanwhile, are the Templeton Foundation, which funds initiatives bringing science and faith together, and Helmsley Charitable Trust which believes in a “whole-person approach” to treating people with “type 1 diabetes and all chronic diseases.” 

Further indications pointing to the wish of some participants to use the conference to promote vaccines in a Church setting came in a promotional email sent to the media this week by the Cura Foundation. 

“The Catholic Church has come under scrutiny for questioning the use of the J&J vaccine but came out on the side of science saying it’s better to get any vaccine — and that is the point of this gathering,” read the April 22 email from a Cura Foundation PR Support official headed "Collaboration in Science & Faith - The Vatican, COVID vaccines, and science online conference - May 6-8". The reference to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine apparently relates to the “moral concerns” raised by U.S. bishops about its production using cell lines derived from the tissue of aborted fetuses. 

“In these difficult times of COVID,” the email read, “international experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Health’s Dr. Francis Collins, Moderna and Pfizer CEOs, as well as religious leaders in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and the Muslim faiths will be present as we grapple as a society with global health and being a unified global society.”

When the Register asked Amber Lacroix, the author of the email, if the Cura Foundation sees the point of the meeting as promoting and encouraging Vatican support for the vaccines, she said her framing of the gathering was “wrong,” apologized for stating “something too forward,” and recommended speaking with “official spokespersons” for the conference. 

Last week, Msgr. Trafny told the Register the conference is an exchange of opinions meant to challenge each other’s views. The aim, he added, is also “to point to expertise, stress the importance of research” related to new therapies that are often misunderstood. 

Asked whether, given that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stressed the importance of pressuring pharmaceutical companies not to produce abortion-tainted vaccines even though they say their use is licit, the organizers will use this opportunity to make the concerns known to the CEOs of Moderna and Pfizer, Msgr. Trafny replied: “We think it’s better to raise their level of sensitivity and awareness instead of only complaining or condemning them. We want them to understand our point of view and invite them to think more broadly instead of saying: ‘You’re the bad guys.’ They are deeply convinced they’re doing good and sometimes only lack sensitivity because they’re not formed in the way we are.”

Despite the promotional emphasis on anti-COVID vaccines, most of the Vatican conference’s agenda is dedicated to themes not directly related to the recent coronavirus pandemic. Topics include examining the link between cancer and cardiovascular disease, the “mysteries of brain inflammation,” and “religious dietary practices and health.” 

But the online meeting comes at a time of considerable worldwide “vaccine hesitancy” — a term used by the pharmaceutical industry to describe reluctance to take the vaccine. On Thursday, it was reported the Biden administration would be launching a massive campaign to combat resistance to the vaccine as polls suggest a significant number of Americans will likely refuse to take the shots.

Within the Church, many are opposed to the vaccines on the grounds that those available have either been produced or tested using aborted fetal cell lines from the 1960s and 1970s. The Vatican has declared the use of such vaccines morally licit due to the remoteness of any cooperation of evil and the gravity of the dangers of COVID-19, but also advocates the encouragement of alternative vaccines that “do not create problems of conscience.” 

Last week, a group of Italian lawyers, doctors and pharmacists wrote in support of Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s firm stance against such vaccines and committed themselves to ensuring at the legislative level that any future use of human embryonic and fetal cells derived from the taking of innocent human life be “legally reprimanded and criminally sanctioned.”

Other factors also discouraging vaccine use include fears they have been produced rapidly without adequate testing, side effects including a number of deaths due to blood clots, and some reports of an increase in deaths following vaccination programs.

So far the agenda of the upcoming Vatican conference does not explicitly address how these ethical concerns will be raised. Rather, sessions promoting mRNA therapies (used in the Moderna and Pfizer COVID vaccines as well as others), “Comprehensive COVID-19 Solutions,” and how to apply “next-generation technology” used in these vaccines “to a range of diseases” are the foci of discussion.  

Bancel will give a talk entitled “The Story That Saved Lives and Will Impact Our Future,” while Dr. Collins, who at the start of the coronavirus outbreak urged faith communities to trust the science to fight the disease, will speak on the topic of “Bridging Science and Faith.” 

Other COVID-related themes to be discussed include the ethics of data and artificial intelligence (AI), and preparing a better health response to such crises, at which Bourla will speak about building on the lessons learned from the virus outbreak including “new vaccine development and distribution and, more importantly, prevention.”

In April 24 comments to the Register, Robin Smith, president of the Cura Foundation, said the point of the conference was neither about how the Vatican views vaccines nor promoting vaccines in a Church setting but rather about creating a “dialogue with multiple stakeholders about the mind, body and soul and how to improve human health globally.” 

She said the conference “will explore the opinions of religion leaders as it relates to the [COVID-19] pandemic and the social responsibility of religious institutions to assist individuals make decisions that may impact their health.” 

Although she did not specify which speakers, Smith added that many of them were invited before the pandemic began” as the conference was initially planned for May 2020.

Vaccination

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As the COVID-19 vaccines continue to be distributed and become more readily available, Catholics everywhere are asking important questions about which ones — if any — they can receive. What guidance does the Church offer at this moment, especially when experts and even bishops seem to contradict each other? This week on Register Radio we talk to Dr. Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, who holds a PhD in bioethics, about the controversy, forming our consciences, and what Catholics need to know about vaccines.