Measuring Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine: Now’s the Time to Press Hard for Ethical Options

Despite reports that Moderna’s vaccine has no connection to fetal cell lines from elective abortions, the creation of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine isn’t so morally clear cut.

A new vaccine that protects against COVID-19 is nearly 95% effective, early data from company Moderna shows.
A new vaccine that protects against COVID-19 is nearly 95% effective, early data from company Moderna shows. (photo: Justin Tallis / AFP/Getty)

TYLER, Texas — Because there are differing claims about the ethics of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, some clarifications need to be made, especially since phase III trials are concluding. What Catholics are willing to accept as ethical, despite unethical associations, for the first COVID-19 vaccines released publicly could influence the availability of more ethically sound options going forward. 

Bishop Joseph Strickland in the Diocese of Tyler, who is known for his straight talk and defense of the faith, tweeted on Nov. 16: “Moderna vaccine is not morally produced. Unborn children died in abortions and then their bodies were used as ‘laboratory specimens.’ I urge all who believe in the sanctity of life to reject a vaccine which has been produced immorally.”

On Nov. 17, a Catholic News Agency (CNA) article compared Bishop Strickland’s position to that of bioethicists at the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) and the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC). 

CLI lists the Moderna vaccine as “ethically uncontroversial,” a category they describe as having no connection to the use of cells from electively aborted fetuses. Dr. John Brehany, director of institutional relations at NCBC, told CNA that while Moderna “has some association with the use of cell lines from elective abortions, it is not responsible for that use, and its vaccine was not produced using HEK293 cells.” 

The HEK293 referenced by Dr. Brehany is a fetal cell line derived from an aborted fetus in the 1970s. The claim that Moderna did not use HEK293 to produce the COVID-19 vaccine does not seem to line up with other available information. 

Moderna’s vaccine is not a traditional vaccine that injects an attenuated or dead form of the virus into the body to trigger an immune response. Instead, scientists used the genetic sequence of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, to isolate the code for the spike protein and encode instructions for making it in an mRNA molecule. The spike protein is the part of the coronavirus that attaches to human immune cells. 

Working together, scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Moderna identified the sequence for the spike protein. (See explanation by Moderna here.) According to their jointly published pre-clinical study in Nature journal from August 2020, HEK293 cells were used for spike protein and mRNA expression to develop and test the vaccine. The report is posted on Moderna’s website

There are 64 authors on the research team: 30 from NIAID, 18 from Moderna, nine from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and seven more total from Vanderbilt University, the University of Texas at Austin, and George Washington University. The scientific report says that the lead researchers from Moderna, NIAID, and UNC contributed equally to the research. The team successfully demonstrated that the mRNA vaccine induced antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 infection in the lungs and nose of mice.

This mRNA, in this case, is the vaccine. It is injected into the body via a lipid nanoparticle delivery system. Once in the body, the mRNA is expressed as the spike protein, and the body responds by generating antibodies against the spike, which therefore protects the person from coronavirus infection. 

In a patent Moderna filed in 2019 presenting similar technology with mRNA, they repeatedly describe the use of HEK293 cells, including in the development of the lipid nanoparticle delivery system. 

So, the claim that Moderna’s vaccine is “ethically uncontroversial” because it has no connection to unethically derived materials does not seem to be supported as both the development of the spike protein sequence, the mRNA expression in testing, and the lipid nanoparticle delivery system are described as using the HEK293 cell line derived from an aborted fetus. 

Instead of assigning this vaccine to a category that suggests no more caution is needed, I think it is better to slow down and look at the big picture. The COVID-19 vaccine is not a vaccine that was produced decades ago. We are not like the parents who sit in doctors’ offices accepting a morally tainted vaccine because there are no alternatives while voicing an objection that goes nowhere. Rather, we are talking about a vaccine currently in development, a vaccine that could be required for the entire population in a year’s time, a new kind of vaccine that has never gone to market before and will certainly undergo more testing and development. This means that we can’t passively accept the possibility of morally tainted work. We need to speak up loudly with clarity and courage about the ethics and insist upon an ethical option. It could redirect this entire issue towards the good.

In 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL), in response to Debra Vinnedge, Founder of Children of God for Life, provided clarification for parents confronted with childhood vaccines produced using fetal cell lines. Bioethicists today often cite this document as reluctant support for using unethically produced vaccines if there is no alternative. But that is not all the Vatican instructed. 

The document also said that vaccines produced “as a result of the use of biological material whose origin is connected with cells coming from foetuses voluntarily aborted” is morally illicit. This appears to apply to the Moderna vaccine. 

The PAL also notes that various cooperating agents can have different moral responsibilities, so a vaccine that was connected to fetal cell lines only in the early research and testing but not in the market production and quality control would be a better vaccine than one that used fetal cell lines in the ongoing production. This would not render the vaccine ethically uncontroversial, however, but it would be a step in the right direction.

The PAL also said that producers of vaccines that relied on fetal cell lines have an obligation to “denounce and reject publicly the original immoral act (the voluntary abortion)” and to “dedicate themselves together to research and promote alternative ways, exempt from moral evil.” Moderna has issued no such statements.

The PAL also said that faithful citizens of upright conscience are obligated to oppose the use of fetal cell lines in vaccines. We must oppose attacks against life, which is exactly what Bishop Strickland is doing. 

This is not a time for equivocation. There is already too much confusion in our culture and in the Church. With the development of the COVID-19 vaccines currently ongoing now is the time to insist upon ethical options that respect the dignity of human life. 

Bishop Strickland is right to declare that “unborn children died in abortions and then their bodies were used as laboratory specimens” when they were dissected for cells to grow into cell lines. He is right to “urge all who believe in the sanctity of life to reject a vaccine which has been produced immorally.” Bishop Strickland is speaking the truth: he is being clear and consistent in evaluating both Moderna’s claims and the Vatican’s guidance when he says that “Moderna vaccine is not morally produced.” He is concerned with building civilization and guarding the deposit of faith, as a bishop should be. 

The good news is that there are ethical COVID-19 vaccines in production, lots of them. We must support those and keep our eyes on the long-term goal. We have a chance in this moment in history to demand ethical vaccines as the norm not the alternative if we stay vigilant.