Letter to MP regarding Foetal Cell Lines in Vaccine Production and Testing

The Vatican has advised Catholics that they may use any covid-19 vaccine produced or tested using cell lines which originate in historic abortions, as long as they have a serious reason for doing so. Given the lethal potential of this virus, the impact on one’s dependents and the capacity of the health service, as well as the growing evidence that vaccines reduce a person’s ability to spread covid-19, such a serious reason exists in this case. But Catholics are also asked to put “pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available”. I recently sent this letter to my MP and am happy to make the text available for others to use freely.

Dear (MP Name), I am a constituent resident at (give your address, as the MP must known you are a constituent to deal with your message.)


The rush to produce and deploy vaccines on a global scale has brought a new focus on the ways in which vaccines are manufactured and tested using products derived from aborted human foetuses. This applies not only to covid-19 vaccines but other vaccines which have been in routine use for children and adults, for many years. 

I am sure you will recognise that this is distasteful to many, and a moral red line for some, even though it has been a scientific ‘necessity’ to achieve the ends of life-saving vaccinations for much of the last 50 years. Should the Government move to introduce any kind of vaccine ‘passport’ scheme, this will place conscientious objectors to such vaccines in a very difficult position.

Let me make my own stance clear: when I am called to receive a vaccine, I will accept it as the socially responsible thing to do, but with a heavy heart; I will seek to receive an mRNA vaccine (not developed, only tested, in embryo cell lines) rather than the other options if I have any freedom to do so; and I am raising my voice in protest at the limited options available by the act of writing this letter.

Due to my own religious and moral views, I would very much prefer that abortion were outlawed; but I recognise that this is not an achievable goal in the UK in the foreseeable future. Based on scientific evidence, I recognise that there are strong advantages to the pharmaceutical industry in comparing new products against well-established standards derived from embryo cell lines; moving away from these standards is not technically impossible but requires the force of funding and legislation to overcome inertia.

As my Parliamentary representative, I would therefore ask you to work towards two goals, which would at least move towards minimising the issues for conscientious objectors and maximising the uptake of future vaccines. These goals are:

 (1) Requiring prioritised Government funding to develop ethical cell lines which can be used for developing and testing vaccine products;

 (2)  As soon as these ethical cell lines are sufficiently developed, requiring by legislation that these cells, rather than embryo-derived cells, be used for quality control checks on any vaccine made available in the UK.

I attach a short paper setting out the rationale for each of these steps.

As your constituent, I assure you of my prayers for your work and well-being in these strange times.

Yours Sincerely,

YOUR NAME


Cell lines are used to develop and test vaccines because they are human cells detached from a living human body which can be grown at scale in a laboratory. Some vaccines rely on modifying a mild virus to resemble part of the dangerous virus; these mild viruses must be grown in human, not animal, cells for maximum effectiveness. Other vaccines – the innovative mRNA vaccines – can be synthesised chemically, but still need to be tested for safety and quality by their effect on human cells.

Some of the available cell-lines are ‘immortalized’ – they have been manipulated so that they will keep reproducing indefinitely (the successful strains represent ‘happy accidents’ since our ability to manipulate is currently based on limited knowledge). These strains include[1] the HEK293 cells used to test vaccines and to grow the anticovid AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine – and the PER.C6 strain for the Johnson & Johnson one shot vaccine recently authorised in the USA. Insofar as the abortions which gave rise to these cell lines are irreversible historic events, these cells can be used without ‘encouraging’ future abortions.

Vaccines for other serious diseases are gown in cell lines which are not immortalised. The British MRC-5 line, the American WI-38 line and Chinese Walvax-2 line are regularly used, but these cells, like all non-cancerous cells in the human body, can only reproduce themselves a limited number of times. In the UK,[2] the MRC-5 and WI-38 lines are used to produce the rubella component of the MMR vaccine, and vaccines against chickenpox and shingles. These cell lines will eventually lose their capacity to reproduce, and will need to be replaced – but by what? By procuring cells from a fresh abortion?

We now have the ability to take cells from consenting adult donors and regress them to a near-embryonic stage – such cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These are less ideal candidates for growing vaccines because (at our current ability to manipulate them) they will not retain their pluripotent status forever; they also impede scientists’ ability to match ‘like with like’ in reviewing historical data against current research. Nevertheless, if there were sufficient reason to do so (positive funding, and legislation restricting the use of embryonic cell lines), ways could be found to use these totally ethical cell lines to produce and test vaccines at scale.

The UK Parliament has always recognised that there is a grave issue of conscience around abortion. Free votes are permitted to MPs; there is a (limited) right of conscientious objection by medical practitioners who do not wish to perform terminations. We should therefore recognise that similar grave issues of conscience apply to those who wish to take a vaccine for the common good but do not wish to be tainted in any way by co-operating with a historic abortion, still less consuming a limited resource which may one day require replenishment by a future abortion. This should be sufficient reason to implement goal 1 now (fund research to enable ethical adult-derived cells to become useful for growing and testing vaccines) and goal 2 as soon as technically feasible (where the Government requires quality control testing, this must be done using ethical cells).


[1] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/abortion-opponents-protest-covid-19-vaccines-use-fetal-cells 

[2] https://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/vaccine-ingredients#human-cell-strains and https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/use-of-human-and-animal-products-in-vaccines/guide-to-the-use-of-human-and-animal-products-in-vaccines