Ethical inconsistencies among conservative representatives have emerged recently after President Trump received an antiviral cocktail developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which utilized immortalized cell lines from human embryonic kidney cells (HEK293T) in its research.
What are HEK293T cells?
In 1972, scientists in The Netherlands used kidney tissue from an electively aborted fetus to grow cells that, when introduced with a viral gene, can be reproduced indefinitely and undergo other genetic additions. This technology has multiple applications in scientific and medical research and has been used in the development of different vaccines for decades, including hepatitis A, rubella, chickenpox, and shingles. Science Magazine notes these immortalized cell lines have helped develop drugs against diseases including cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, among others.
Regeneron executives have gone on an extensive media tour in which they remarked that the use of HEK293T cell lines was only part of the research that led to the final drug, but the manufacturing of the end product did not use stem cells or cells from aborted fetuses. The cell lines served the function of mimicking viral particles that were then used to test the effectiveness of the two monoclonal antibodies the cocktail contains. Last Sunday, Regeneron CEO declared on CBS’ Face The Nation: “(…) it’s not used to manufacture the product. It was- it’s a standard cell line that was derived over 50 years ago. And so it’s used as a research tool. Where that research should be done, that’s a good debate to have. But it’s probably not the debate we need to have right now.
The distance in time between the original source of these cells – the tissue of an aborted fetus – and its application today seems to serve as an argument that Mr. Trump’s hailing of this treatment is not contradictory to his pro-life stance. White House officials told the Washington Post in an article from October 8th that “a product made using extant cells lines that existed before June 5, 2019 would not implicate the administration’s policy on the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions.” However, at least five of the candidate COVID-19 vaccines also use this type of human fetal cell lines, including HEK293, and different groups have expressed strong opposition to such practice.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined by leaders of healthcare, bioethics, and pro-life organizations, issued a letter in April to the FDA Commissioner, Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, urging the agency to ensure that vaccines for COVID-19 are free from “the use of old cell lines created from the cells of aborted babies.”
On May 6th this year, the Charlotte Lozier Institute released a report named “An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs,” in which they state the following:
“While some may see no ethical problem, for many a straight line can be drawn from the ending of a human life in an abortion to a vaccine or drug created using cells derived from the harvesting of the fetal tissue. Even if the cells have been propagated for years in the laboratory far removed from the abortion, that connection line remains. Thus, use of such cells for vaccine production raises problems of conscience for anyone who might be offered that vaccine and is aware of its lineage.”
David A. Prentice, Vice President and Research Director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, co-authored a press release with Louisiana Senator (R) Bill Cassidy in 2015 about the use of fetal organs by Planned Parenthood. In the document, they argued that the use of fetal tissue as a valid scientific procedure to treat and cure illness was “a sham.” They gave multiple examples of cases in which this practice led to bad results, making the case that alternative options such as adult stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), or stem cells from umbilical cord blood made fetal tissue research antiquated and useless.
The issue of abortion is a deal-breaker for a significant group of voters. According to a Gallup survey, as of May 2020, 20% of voters feel candidates should share their views on abortion, and 50% consider it one of many important factors. In the case of choosing between a life-saving treatment or vaccine that uses controversial technology according to Catholic values, it seems relevant to ask representatives for their position so that voters can make an informed choice.
Big Easy Magazine reached out to Senator Cassidy for an opportunity to update his thoughts on this subject, and to provide a response to the question of how he reconciles his support for President Trump and his pro-life values after endorsing this treatment. To date, we have received no response from Senator Cassidy.
Giselle P. Dussel is a Latina writer with a degree in International Business. She is a contributing writer for Big Easy Magazine, a climate activist and a stay-at-home mother.