Covid Conversations

As a priest with a science background, several people have asked me about covid-19 and vaccinations. I stress that as an astrophysicist, I am not a specialist in viruses and vaccines – but as someone with wide experience in general science communication, I have a good working knowledge of genetics and cell biology, professional training in experimental statistics, and the experience to read scientific papers outside my field and recognise legitimate claims. A lot of the ‘concerned scientists’ who are championed by antivaxers have no more subject-specific expertese than I… so with these caveats in mind, let’s look at the issues.

Is Covid-19 really a serious threat?

Perhaps you are sympathetic to conspiracy theories that covid-19 doesn’t exist at all. If that’s your starting point, I’m not sure where we can find common ground; you will find a weak reason to discredit any piece of evidence I try to bring to the table and decide it must be a strong reason, because otherwise you’d be wrong and I would be right. As a professional scientist, I am confident that if there were a global conspiracy to pretend a virus exists, there would be whistleblowers a-plenty. Science can only work by publishing evidence and cross-checking results. Science is also international, and planet Earth doesn’t have a good track record of its nations working together for a common cause – so it’s unlikely that Asian and American and European and African and Australasian scientists could all be bribed or threatened into presenting a false united front. So I’m going to start by saying that covid-19 exists – but what is it?

A virus is a piece of genetic code in a chemical capsule which protects the genes long enough to travel from one person to another, and then infiltrate the cells in the next person’s body. The genetic code instructs those cells in the new victim’s body to make fresh copies of the genetic code and package it in similar capsules. A coronavirus is a kind of virus where the ‘capsule’ is shaped like a ball covered with spikes; and these spikes help the virus infiltrate the cells in our body – specifically, our lungs when we breathe it in.

A virus which can get itself copied and spread, and not kill its host before it does so, will thrive. The victim’s immune system will attack the virus to repel the invasion – and it’s our own immune response that causes ‘flu-like symptoms’ when we receive either a virus, or a vaccine which trains our immune system to recognise part of the virus.

When viruses get duplicated, sometimes copying errors are made in the genetic code. And, more rarely but often enough, two viruses get into the same cell at the same time, and their code can be stitched together to make a new pattern. Most of these changes (mutations) make the viruses less successful, or even incapable of spreading successfully – but occassionally the random mutation happens to be one which is more spreadable – and therefore, the new pattern spreads! This is why we are now talking about ‘new variants’ of covid-19. When the variation affects the shape of the capsule or the spikes on it, it makes it less likely that your body’s immune system, trained to recognise the original shape (by illness or a vaccine) will recognise this new shape as a known invader for rapid disposal.

There are a wide range of possible outcomes if you catch covid-19. You might not develop symptoms at all, but still have enough infection that you are breathing out thousands of virus particles with every breath. You might have a mild flu-like episode. You might have serious breathing difficulties and need to be on an oxygen supply or a more invasive ventilator (tube placed down your airway). When you recover (whether or not you had severe breathing difficulties), you might suffer long-term lethargy (‘long covid’). Or you might not recover – you could die.

One person from my wider circle of friends died last summer. Two of my friends – a hospital doctor and a priest – are suffering long-term consequences of covid. Another doctor-friend was off work for more than a month before recovering eventually. I also know a number of families who suffered only very mild bouts. As far as I know, I haven’t caught covid yet.

It’s been said that human life itself is a sexually-transmitted terminal condition – we’re all born, and we’re all going to die of something (unless we live to see the Second Coming of Christ!) In Western democracies, part of the social contract is that the state will make reasonable efforts to stop you dying of avoidable causes – an ambulance will come, and a skilled team of doctors will do their best to help you recover from the brink of death when you suffer an accident, illness or other medical incident (and in some countries, give you a handsome bill for their trouble when they discharge you). But the resources available are not infinite – money is not poured into researching very rare diseases which won’t recoup costs for drug companies, and hospitals will politely suggest that an expensive life-support machine be switched off when there’s no medical reason to expect that a patient will recover, once brain-stem death has been diagnosed.

In Britain, our current social policies are built around not stretching our National Health Service beyond capacity. We don’t want to be in a position where we say ‘This covid patient wasn’t given a fighting chance to pull through because no ventilator was available.’ (Note that to be ‘available’ there needs to be trained ventilator staff as well as a physical machine!) Already, the need to respond to covid emergencies and disinfect ambulances has led to increased response times with likely fatal consequences. Measuring the impact of covid is tricky. How do we take account of people with other medical conditions whose treatment is stopped or delayed becuse the NHS is focussing on covid? How many people who die within 28 days of getting a positive covid test (an easy statistic to measure) actually died ‘because’ of covid? If you catch covid and have another health condition too, which of them is responsible for your demise? Scientists are not blind to these problems, and so the preferred way to measure the impact of covid is to look at the age profile of people who died in 2020 (the study linked goes up to 20 Nov 2020), and compare it to what the age profile would have been expected to be based on data from previous years. This method shows that in England and Wales, because of covid and despite the restrictions of the spring and autumn lockdowns and other measures, 53,937 people died who would otherwise have been alive by 20 Nov.

Now, how many of those 53,937 people would have died soon after 20 Nov 2020 anyway – and how many would have gone on enjoy many more years of life? It’s impossible to predict what would have happened to individuals, but a careful study from Glasgow suggests that a healthy 80 year-old who dies from covid would, on average, otherwise have lived to be 90. A person in their 50s who dies from covid is most likely to lose about 30 years of life. It’s sad but unsurprising to see high death tolls in nursing homes, where residents are near the end of their lives anyway; those who would have died soon from other causes are most vulnerable to covid. But when those lives are of soneone’s cherished grandparents, it would be a brave or foolish person who claimed that these deaths don’t matter! For the population as a whole, covid-19 shortens the life of a woman by 0.9 years and the life of a man by 1.2 years – but these averages are summing up what happens to the many who don’t catch covid and the portion who do, plus taking into account the impact on society of all the consequences of coronavirus.

What about me? I’m a 47 year old, obese, white male. The qcovid calculator (which matches my chances to what happened to people in the first UK lockdown profiled by age, weight, race and other factors) suggests that in the next 90 days, I have a 1 in 1309 chance of being admitted to hospital due to covid-19 and a 1 in 17857 chance of dying because of covid-19. Now this probability conflates the chance that I catch the disease and the chance of getting serious consequences if I do. My chance of catching it in the first place is lower than someone who has to work in a healthcare environment or public place. What about my parents? Men are more vulnerable than women, and my Dad has a roughly 1 in 400 chance of dying due to covid in the next 90 days… but what happens when 90 days become 900? This brings the odds to 1 in 40. Without vaccinations, even if we stay in lockdown, 39 people with Dads like mine won’t lose their Dad to covid before the end of 2023. One will.

Vaccine Questions

The human body has a wonderful and adaptable immune system. White blood cells are constantly vigilant for biological material which doesn’t seem to be part of your own body, and after successfully repelling an invader, they retain a ‘memory’ causing them to respond more quickly to future invasions by the same enemy. Traditional vaccines train the body to recognise an invader by providing a ‘training dose’ which might be only part of the full invading organism, or a weakened version of the whole virus.

Some of these vaccines use a new technology – they are mRNA vaccines. RNA is a chemical similar to DNA which carries genetic code – but while DNA is normally found in matching pairs of strands locked away in a cell’s nucleus, RNA is usually found as a single strand floating in the cell’s body. The ‘m’ stands for ‘messenger’ because RNA’s usual role is to instruct mechanisms in the cell to create new structures (proteins) or to duplicate genetic code. An mRNA vaccine instructs your own cells to make a charcteristic part of the invader you want to repel – in this case, your own body cells produce the same ‘spike’ protein that covid uses to infect your lungs. You can think of the cell nucleus as a ‘reference library’ which contains recipe books which can’t be removed (the DNA); when your cell needs to do something, it consults the recipe book, makes a ‘photocopy’ of the instructions using RNA, and then destroys the copy when no longer needed. The mRNA vaccine is slipping its own recipe into the pile of recipes which are routinely received from the cell nucleus and then destroyed.

Actually this new technology isn’t so new – it’s been trialled in animals since 1990. But a paper published in Nature in 2018 notes that it was only in the 2010s that we learned how to deliver mRNA into cells at the scale needed to work effectively as a vaccine. The problem is, there are several clean-up chemicals in our cells which make sure old mRNA isn’t left hanging around. The half-life (time for 50% to decay) of mRNA in the human body is about 7 hours. Now the special mRNA designed for the covid vaccine is a self-amplifying mRNA which means it includes a code telling cells to replicate it … so there’s a race between how quickly the cell can multiply it and how long it takes the cell’s natural clean-up mechanisms to degrade the mRNA until it doesn’t work any more. Making a strand of mRNA long enough to carry both the self-replicating instructions and the vaccine component means it’s quite a large and vulnerable molecule. Eventually the body’s clean-up mechanism will win, but I can’t tell you exactly how long that takes, because the vaccine company doesn’t seem to have published that data. The bottom line is that mRNA is a fairly new technology but it’s not one never tried before in humans – on the contrary, clinical trials of mRNA vaccines have taken place in humans, such as this 2018 flu vaccine trial.

Is there any danger that the genetic codes in these mRNA vaccines will somehow get embedded into our own genetic code? The short answer is ‘No’. The more accurate answer is ‘not enough to worry about’. The mRNA is only accessing our cell bodies, not penetrating the nucleus where our cells store their own DNA. And yet scientists almost never say ‘never’. Viruses do the same thing as mRNA vaccines – put their own genetic code into our cells to hijack them. And very rarely – so rarely that we have to look for evidence over thousands of years – a virus can get itself permanently written into our human DNA (see here and here). The chances of this happening from the covid vaccine are no greater than the chances of it happening from a covid infection. If the RNA code did somehow get written into our own DNA, first it would only affect the cell where it happened (though if that happened to be an egg or sperm cell that got fertilised, it would be in every cell in the new child’s body). Next, it would probably corrupt the DNA and make it unreadable. If it somehow got spliced into a sensible place, it would only have an effect when the genetic code in that part of the cell was activated. (Every cell in your body contains instructions on how to be muscle, skin, liver and brain. Since most cells spend their time not being all but one of the things they could be, a lot of code in them goes unprocessed.) As far as I can see there is no special risk of taking an experimental mRNA vaccine – certainly no greater than the risk that catching a cold could somehow rewrite your DNA!

There is, of course, one important ethical difference. If you catch a virus, despite your best efforts to practice good hygiene, you are not morally responsible for the consequences which you suffer. If a pharmaceutical company, physician and patient agree that the patient should receive an mRNA vaccine, then they all share moral responsibility for injecting that genetic code into the consenting individual. The odds of a runaway gene getting into the human genome through you are tiny – but not zero. Yet we accept much greater odds every time we get behind the wheel of a car – we are entering into a pact with other drivers, pedestrians, and parents of wayward children, that together we will not create a scenario where my driving has tragic consequences. Alas, we cannot always anticpate the unexpected, and if a large part falls off a car in front of me or a small child breaks away from her reins and dashes into the road, I may find myself unwillingly responsible for a crash or worse. Do we base our decision on which risks we will take on the size of the risk (which is logical) or the ‘smell’ of the risk, which feels worse when we have no experience to draw on?

Covid vaccines have now been developed by a number of different countries. They have been fast-tracked for approval, and there are some inevitable consequences. Can we tell you, based on evidence, what cumulative effects these vaccines will have after 5 years? No, because we haven’t had 5 years to run tests. Can we tell you what side-effects will appear at the one-in-a-million level? Not yet, though that data will be gathered as millions are vaccinated and marginal adverse effects are noticed. Have some things been done in parallel because of the the urgency which would otherwise have been done step-by-step? Yes. Is there an ethical requirement to give an effective vaccine to the “control” group of unvaccinated volunteers? Yes, when the evidence for safety and effectiveness passes certain thresholds. There will still be “natural control” groups of people unvaccinated for various reasons. Have the regulators “cut corners”? Not in the essential steps of what they have to test.

Is the risk of taking a vaccine greater than the risk from catching covid? Unless there are known reasons why a vaccine may be dangerous to an individual (e.g. a history of anaphylactic shock) the answer is no. The Oxford AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTec vaccines report that serious side effects occur in 1 in 100,000 cases. Moderna reports 1 in 1,000,000 but acknowledges the posibility of the vaccine causing temporary facial paralysis, more serious than the side effects reported for the other vaccines.

Let’s consider what would happen if I did or didn’t take the vaccine during the current lockdown conditions (obviously my risk of catching covid goes up when there’s no lockdown). The qcovid tool was calibrated during the first lockdown so is broadly applicable in the current lockdown. Let’s ask what would happen if I did or didn’t take a 95% effective vaccine. Or rather, let’s ask would would happen in roughly the next year (4 x 90 days) if a million people like me did or didn’t…

  • If a million people like me choose not to take the vaccine: 3,040 will need to go to hospital. 240 will die.
  • If a million people like me DO take a 95% effective vaccine: 152 will be in hospital because of covid. 10 might suffer serious side effects to the vaccine. 12 will die. (And that’s if lockdown measures stay as tight as they are. Looser measures will mean more hospitalisations and more deaths… on the other hand, if the vaccines turn out to make people significantly less able to spread the virus then the nunber of severe reactions and deaths will go down.)

So thanks to a vaccine, among the million people like me, 228 people will be saved from death; another 2,888 won’t need a hospital bed, but 10 will have a nasty experience of side effects.

Should we vaccinate children against covid? That’s an interesting question, and there’s a parallel with chickenpox. In the USA, all children are routinely vaccinated against varicella (the virus which cauhses chickenpox and shingles). In the UK, it’s NHS policy that only clinically vulnerable children, and elderly people, receive this vaccine. Chickenpox tends to be a mild disease in children, and provides a ‘natural booster’ for their parents. The parents’ immune systems get a reminder of what chickenpox looks like through contact with these children. This reminder helps to suppress dormant varicella which could otherwise emerge as shingles.

Based on US statistics for the first year of covid circulating, 12,329 children have been hospitalised with covid and 297 have died. Divergence in reporting between different States make this a little inaccurate, but as a ballpark figure, with 74 million children living in the USA, this means that in each million children, in the course of a year with partial lockdowns, 166 will go to hospital and perhaps 4 will die. Those 4 children probably represent children with underlying conditions who could have been singled out for vaccination (a similar study in the UK showed only 4 children died due to covid in the first peak and all had underlying conditions). So in a future where adults are vaccinated, and children are pretty safe from dying with covid, should children not be vaccinated in order to keep covid circulating at a level where the older vaccinated population gets a natural ‘boost’? There are too many uncertainties at present about the effects of vaccines on whether people can carry and transmit covid before their immune system clears it out, but at some stage we may face the question: if the whole of the older population is vaccinated, at what age should we start vaccinating? This will be about balancing the natural resilience of children and the need to keep the vaccinated population naturally boosted – if it turns out covid works the same way as chickenpox.

Finally, some ask whether it’s possible that taking a vaccine could actually make you have a worse reaction if you do catch covid. This is a genuine risk with some vaccines – it’s known as enhancement. This scientific paper from 2016 notes:

One concern of vaccination in humans is vaccine-mediated enhancement of disease, a process in which the disease following infection is more severe in vaccinated individuals than in unvaccinated individuals. Although this was observed in only a small subset of vaccine studies that were carried out for SARS-CoV and has not yet been observed in any of the published MERS-CoV vaccine studies, it is an important concern.

This in turn cites a paper which reviews the ‘small subset’; that report notes there is a indeed a significant history of coronavirus vaccines causing strong reactions… for vaccines developed for certain viruses which infect cats. So far as research has been carried out into coronaviruses which affect human respiration, “In the vast majority of studies, immunogenicity has been elicited without any negative impact on health after challenge with the virulent pathogen.” Or in plain English, the risk of a covid-19 vaccine provoking a strong reaction when the vaccinated person catches covid is tiny, but not zero. Remember that before vaccines are licensed for use, clinical trials have to prove that the vaccine is effective in ensuring that most people who would otherwise have had a serious reaction will instead experience mild or immeasurable symptoms; if signifcant numbers of people were going to have a severe reaction, it would have been noticed at that stage.

Embryonic Cell Lines

A particularly troubling matter for Catholics, and indeed all who respect the sanctity of human life, is the use of ‘cell lines’ derived from aborted foetuses in antiviral research. The most prominent cell line is HEK293, though other cell lines do exist. It’s worth telling the story of HEK293 to give it a context.

Frank Graham was studying cancer in 1973. Cancer is the general name given to any condition when cells in a creature (human or otherwise) stop doing what they are ‘supposed’ to do and start reproducing wildly. Several things can trigger cancer, including radiation, pollution and genetic defects. But certain kinds of virus can also trigger cancer, and Frank was studying a kind called adenovirus. He was working in the Netherlands, where elective abortion had become less restricted since 1966, and he chose to harvest cells from the kidneys of freshly aborted foetuses. His 293rd experiment – he started by treating 40 batches of cells at a time – succeeded in producing a line of cancer cells that could reproduce themselves indefinitely, leading to the serial number HEK 293 – Human Embryonic Kidney cell test 293. It turned out that part of the adenovirus had incorporated itself into the nucleus of the original HEK 293 cell, and also triggered duplications of existing chromosome material. (So this is a rare example of the DNA in a cell actually being modified – but of course this cell was only found because researchers were actively looking for it. If this had happened in a living human body, the cell would have become a tumour, the human would have died, and there would have been no long term consequences for the human race.)

Because HEK293 cells have a modified genetic code, they are not-very-useful for studying how normal human cells behave, but very useful for vaccine research. Adenoviruses tend to produce only mild illnesses in humans, so they are often tweaked to ‘look like’ more dangerous viruses and used as the basis of vaccines that way. But there’s always a risk that tweaking viruses can create some new strain that ‘goes wild’ so the research companies use a ‘safe’ version of adenovirus. Remember, there’s a little bit of the genetic code for adenovirus in every HEK293 cell. They realised that if they knock out that same part of the genetic code from their test virus and then grow it in a HEK293 cell, it would work because the missing instructions are already ‘in there’. But the tweaked adenovirus can’t grow in normal human cells so if it breaks free it can’t go anywhere!

There is no reason to believe that any abortions were coerced specifically to provide Frank Graham with research material; there were enough freely chosen abortions taking place. Graham himself is on record as saying he assumed it was an abortion performed to save a mother’s life because that was the only kind allowed in 1973, but in fact Dutch physicians had been allowed to interpret the existing law to permit abortion on much wider “mother’s wellbeing” grounds since 1967. The serial number 293 doesn’t indicate the number of abortions, but the number of dishes of cells trialled by the time of that experiment; even so, it is likely that material from several foetuses would have been needed to provide so many starting cultures. It has been suggested that the extraction of kidney material would have been carried out on a still-living foetus, causing it great pain; I have been unable to find documentation of Graham’s specific method. It is noteworthy that in 1972, the Peel report of the UK Parliament ruled that foetuses up to 20 weeks’ gestation were non-viable and therefore could be experimented on outside the womb; by 2019, there were conflicting theories on whether foetuses would begin to feel pain around 12, 20 or 24 weeks’ gestation.

Another commonly used human cell line, WI 38, comes from the 38th aborted foetus at the Wistar Institute. These cells have not become cancerous, and are therefore expected to lose their ability to reproduce after going through about 50 cycles of growth, but have become the common growth medium for rubella vaccine. An added controversy is that the mother of the 38th aborted foetus did not give her consent for the cells to be taken. More recently, a team of Chinese scientists created a new cell line (Walvax-2), and in 2015 openly documented the process. Nine candidate foetuses were identified, and aborted using the ‘water bag’ method, allowing their lung cells to be harvested. It is not made clear whether the ‘water bag’ meant the foetus was still alive at the point of harvesting.

When a vaccine is grown in one of these cell cultures, and then administered to a human patient, is it correct to say that ‘aborted tissue’ or ‘DNA from an aborted foetus’ or indeed ‘cancerous tissue’ (in the case of HEK293) is being injected? The process of cell division means that material from the original HEK293 cell has been shared out among the millions of cells produced by its immortal reproduction. The original DNA has been duplicated and reduplicated, but is still a near-perfect copy of what was in the aborted child.

There are roughly 1014 atoms in a human cell. 247 is a number of similar magnitude, indicating that by the time 47 divisions of the HEK293 cells have taken place, there will be, on average, one atom left from the original foetal cell in each daughter cell. There may be a profound ‘yuk factor’ in the notion that actual matter, even an atom, from the original foetus could still be present; but the moral significance remains even if the DNA is merely a copy. It is the heritage of today’s HEK293 cells, and the intentions behind their use (not where the actual molecules in them originate), which gives this material moral gravity.

Human cell lines currently used in the USA are noted by the reputable journal, Science with regard to covid-19 vaccines and vaccines against other viruses; the newly-approved one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses the PER.C6 cell line developed from retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. Like HEK293, these cells have been immortalised so that they can be used indefinitely, without needing a fresh fetal source.

The UK Government acknowledges that vaccines in use in Britain make use of:

… human cell line … MRC5; these cells derive from the lung of a 14-week-old male fetus from a pregnancy that was terminated for medical reasons in 1966. This cell line is used to grow viruses for vaccines against rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A. Other fetal cell lines, collected in the 1970s and 1980s, have been used for other vaccines, including influenza and some of the new COVID-19 vaccines. No fetal material is present in the final vaccine.

There is also the related question of whether aborted or cancerous DNA can have an adverse influence on those vaccinated. When HEK293 or other cell lines are used to grow ‘safe’ viruses to use as vaccines, the product is purified. It is the grown virus, not the HEK293 cells, which are being injected as the vaccine – and a process of purification takes place so that only the desired product ends up in the final vaccine. No purification process is perfect, however so it is acknowledged (and in the papers cited here) that there will be tiny fragments of DNA from the cell line cells still present. These are not complete codes, as in the case of the mRNA vaccine, so there is even less danger of them entering a genome and doing something meaningful – and as one of the pages cited points out, if it were easy for this to happen, scientists would have perfected genetic engineering a long time ago! We do now have tools which allow us to edit genomes (CRISPR-Cas9 technology) but the very fact we need a tool shows that the risk of natural editing taking place is small.

Vaccines which use a weak virus to imitate covid (or any other disease) are grown in cell line cells, so every dose of vaccine has been harvested from cells descended from the tissue of an aborted foetus. The dose no longer contains, except as trace fragments, any part of those cells. The new mRNA vaccines are not grown in this way, but may depend on knowledge from previous research using cell lines – and each batch off the production line is tested using cell-line cells. So there is a difference in degree of connection – some vaccine are grown in cell lines but others can be mass-produced by synthesizing RNA another way. Another ethical distinction can be made between vaccines reliant on HEK293 or PER.C6, which are capable of reproducing indefinitely, and those using other strains such as WI-38 and MRC-5 which will one day reach their reproduction limit; in the latter case, does use imply tacit recognition that one day a new abortion will be needed to replace the cell line?

Of course, it is possible that an ethical alternative may be found. Scientists have considered methods of taking cell samples from embryos without causing injury (though since this is of no direct benefit to the infant, there is a still a question of consent) – and in 2006 we learned how to take tissue from adult donors and regress it so it behaves like embyonic tissue (we call this induced pluripotency). You can now go to a medical supply shop and search for these iP Stem Cells! But the use of these adult-derived cells has not become standard; they have been used to research viruses including Zika and H1N1 flu, but the cell lines are unstable and tend to revert to their specialised parent cells after some generations.

The Ethics of Co-Operation

On certain matters, the Catholic Church offers a simple and clear moral teaching – some actions are wrong in all circumstances, period. One such action (technically, an “intrinsic evil”) is the destruction of an innocent human being, at any moment from conception to natural death.

On other matters, the Church does not dictate what her members can and cannot do, but sets out the values they should weigh in reaching their own conclusions. In 2003, an American pro-life activist asked the Vatican for guidance on whether she should permit her children to receive mandatory vaccinations which had been prepared using foetal cells. The reply came in 2005, and it first summarised the known vaccines at the time which used WI-38 or MRC-5 (there were no HEK293 vaccines mentioned), then set out general principles for co-operation.

  • Do you approve the immoral act?
  • Did you do something to enable it?
  • Did you fail to do something to oppose it?
  • Is your connection in space or time remote from the evil action?

The conclusion was that those who manufacture or market vaccines from embryonic cell lines are doing something ‘illicit’ but that when there was a proportionate reason to use such a vaccine to avoid grave illness, and no ethical alternative was available, a Catholic could accept such a vaccine for their children in good conscience, but under protest. A note from the Vatican in December 2020 affirmed that this conclusion also applied to covid vaccines – no-one should be obliged to receive them, but given the lethal potential of covid, non-vaccinated objectors had a grave responsibility to avoid spreading the virus, and Catholics could receive tainted vaccines in good conscience.

Some Catholics will question whether a there is a sufficiently grave reason to take the vaccine. There are four immediate reasons:

  • To protect one’s own health – but this is self-serving and could readily be sacrificed for ethical reasons.
  • To protect one’s dependents from the consequences of yourself being incapacitated or killed.
  • To reduce pressure on local intensive care services – if you avoidably take up the last ventilator bed, you may prevent another life from being saved.
  • To reduce the spread of the virus – but it’s not yet clear how effective vaccines are at doing this.

While the relationship of vaccines and virus transmission is yet to be determined, it’s clear that a person with no dependents nevertheless benefits society by taking a vaccine in order to reduce pressure on intensive care beds – beds which save lives. It seems to me that this is a sufficiently grave reason to receive a vaccine, under protest – but a Catholic with no dependents wishing to make a conscientious stand might equally decline intensive care treatment should they fall seriously ill with covid at a time of peak pressure on the local health service.

Some pro-life activists question whether it can ever be ethical to make use of a tainted vaccine. Surely, if the Vatican says that even even “passive material cooperation should generally be avoided” then there must be something wrong about such co-operation. But to undertake a wrong action is sin, and a Christian should never deliberately choose to sin. So can it ever be ethical to compromise? To this I would reply that there is a long tradition in the church which recognises that Our Lord offered ‘counsels of perfection’. Some choose to take vows of poverty, chastity and religious obedience – but the failure to do so is not a sin. So there is a grey area between ‘choosing what is most perfect’ and ‘choosing what is actually sinful’. Even Our Lord himself directed St Peter to pay tax to the Romans – allowing a coin with an idolatrous image of the emperor to be used to satisfy a public obligation. We know Our Lord did not sin, and yet he could tolerate this. So in the realms of remote co-operation, where a vaccine is needed for the common good, it is not automatically sinful for a Catholic to choose such a vaccine; but an individual Catholic whose conscience is clear that there is not a sufficient reason to accept the vaccine can, and should, refuse. Healthcare providers act disingenuously when they only point out that the Vatican has ‘permitted’ use of such vaccines; the teaching of the Church also endorses recourse to one’s conscience to weigh whether or not to actually accept the vaccine.