January 15, 2021
Dear Members of the University Community,
If you’ve seen the HBO drama John Adams, you may remember a chilling scene in which Abigail Adams subjects herself and her small children to smallpox variolation. Smallpox was a highly contagious and disfiguring disease throughout much of human history. Fever, nausea, and fatigue would be followed by small blisters covering the entire body. The mortality rate was 30% (higher for children), and there was no treatment. One-third of survivors were blinded. Most carried scars for the rest of their lives. You may have noticed them, pockmarks, in portraits of George Washington.
Variolation was a natural immunization process developed in China and India, which spread to Europe and the New World. It consisted of taking smallpox pus or pulverized scabs and inserting the live virus into a cut on the upper arm of a healthy person. There were serious risks and side effects — including a 2% mortality rate — but for many, like Abigail Adams in 1776, it was a small price to pay compared to the alternative.
The word vaccine, which we now use in lieu of variolation, comes from the Latin word vaccinia (cowpox). The first vaccine was developed in 1796 in the United Kingdom by Dr. Edward Jenner, who noticed that dairy maids who contracted the comparatively mild cowpox were subsequently immune to smallpox. He began to experiment with inoculations using cowpox, and discovered that using the vaccinia virus proved to be an effective, and much safer, protection against smallpox.
It’s estimated that smallpox caused 500 million deaths during the last 100 years of its prevalence. Thanks to the development of modern vaccines, and robust protocols for administering them, the World Health Organization certified the global eradication of smallpox in 1979. John and Abigail Adams would be astounded to know that we no longer worry about smallpox and many other infectious diseases, like whooping cough, diphtheria, typhoid fever, rubella, measles, polio, and the mumps. The vaccine is one of humankind’s greatest achievements.
For months we have received questions about whether Catholic University would mandate the COVID-19 vaccine. There are various reasons why people object to vaccines in general. Many of those objections have been expressed consistently since the beginning of vaccines. Some cite health concerns, such as allergic reactions or other side effects. Some are worried about the approval process, or the deployment of a new type of vaccine. Still another reservation, which we have heard from some of our students over the last year, has to do with the morality of the methods by which most COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and produced. I would like to say a word about this particular concern.
The COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration have been produced by Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. Each has made use of a fetal cell line called HEK 293 for testing, and in the case of the AstraZeneca for production, of the vaccines.
HEK 293 (Human Embryonic Kidney) takes its name from a segment of tissue taken in 1973 from the kidney of an aborted fetus. After 293 experiments the scientist who developed it was able to isolate a robust cell line that would continue to divide and reproduce — the sort that scientists refer to as ‘immortal.’
Though the origin of the cell line is clearly morally objectionable, HEK 293 is now so widely used that it is nearly impossible to do biological research without relying on its fruits. We at Catholic University looked at this problem a decade ago, when one of our graduate students raised an issue about this particular cell line. We created a group to study the question, and after several years of investigation and deliberation produced our Use of Biological Materials in Research Policy.
People who come into contact with HEK 293 today can not be morally responsible for causing an abortion that occurred almost 50 years ago. They should ask, though, whether using vaccines derived from its byproducts encourages drug companies and scientists to promote other abortions in the interest of science and profit.
Two features of HEK 293 have combined to keep that from happening. First, because the cell line continues to divide and reproduce, there is no need to start over with new abortions. Second, because HEK 293 is so widely used in molecular biology reagents, it is dependable and well understood — qualities which new entrants could not claim.
This in no way tempers the grave sin of the original abortion. Nor does it completely erase the possibility that accepting the benefit of that act might affect the way we think about the taking of unborn life. But it does complicate the question about how to navigate a world in which contact with HEK 293 is almost inevitable.
In 2008 the Vatican published an Instruction entitled Dignitas Personae to address the use of cell lines that "are the result of an illicit intervention against the life or physical integrity of a human being." It recognized that in these cases "there exist differing degrees of responsibility." When an actor’s cooperation is remote, "grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify” the use of such cell lines:
Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.
Last month the Vatican released a separate note specifically addressing the COVID-19 vaccines. It stated that it is “morally acceptable” to receive the vaccines since “the moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent.” Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict have both gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
The USCCB favored those produced by Moderna and Pfizer which used HEK 293 only in the testing phase. But the bishops concluded, in light of the serious risk to public health, that it was also appropriate to take the AstraZeneca vaccine if it was the only available alternative. The rubella (German measles) vaccine we all take as children is produced using a cell line that is morally compromised in exactly the same way as the AstraZeneca vaccine.
None of this is to gainsay that all these vaccines are fruits of a poison tree, as lawyers like to say. We have a continuing duty to object to the beginnings of products like HEK 293. The Catholic Medical Association has created a template for doing just that. I encourage you to use it.
Please Do Your Part
Herd immunity is the term we use to describe the state when a virus can’t spread through a community because it can’t find enough people who are vulnerable to infection. When we reach that state we can all take off our masks, shake hands, and celebrate mass together on campus.
Herd immunity can happen naturally after enough people have been infected with the disease, but that takes time. Large-scale vaccinations speed up the process. Some say that only those who are most vulnerable should be vaccinated, but very often those with compromised immune systems can’t safely receive vaccinations. This is where herd immunity can help. By getting vaccinated, and helping us achieve herd immunity, you can play an important role in making sure that the more vulnerable among us stay COVID-free.
We don’t have information on when a vaccine will be made available to the Catholic University community, or what the rollout will look like. We will update you as we get more information.
When it does arrive, though, I hope we’ll understand the opportunity it offers to end the pandemic and save lives. When it’s your turn, get the shot. If we act together we can return to life as before, and finally get off Zoom.