Virologist explains the commonly used cell lines in COVID vaccines

Sep 17, 2021, 10:00 AM | Updated: 10:00 am
cell lines, vaccines...
In this file photo, research scientists work on the development of a vaccine at a microbiology lab at the University of Washington School of Medicine. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

In Washington state, Gov. Inslee has mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for state workers, health care workers, and school staff, as well as a number of other professions. People are allowed, however, to apply for a religious or medical exemption to the mandate.

One of the main reasons cited as a religious exemption is from people who are saying that the vaccines include fetal cells, or parts of aborted fetuses, and that it would be against their faith to take the vaccine. Dr. Angela Rasmussen addresses that.

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Dr. Rasmussen is a virologist and has a PhD in microbiology and immunology from Columbia University. She did her postdoc at the University of Washington. Now, Rasmussen studies emerging viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, and is an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, working at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization.

“The vaccines don’t actually have parts of aborted fetuses in them,” Dr. Rasmussen told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “What people are referring to there is that some of the vaccine development occurs in what are called cell lines. And one of those cell lines that’s very commonly used — because it’s very easy to use — is a cell line called HEK 293.”

“These were cells that were derived from a legally aborted fetus in the 1970s in the Netherlands,” she continued. “So these cells are originally derived from an aborted fetus, from one aborted fetus, but they essentially are not embryonic tissue anymore. They are really an experimental tool that we use for a whole bunch of different things, including vaccine development.”

This is something, she says, that people have been thinking about in terms of religious beliefs for a long time. She says she can’t speak to every religion, but she did note that the Catholic Church has issued statements on this topic.

“The Catholic Church, of course, has been thinking about this and issuing statements from the Vatican,” she said. “They have decided that the moral good of getting a vaccine and protecting your community outweighs the damage morally that’s caused by deriving those cells from an aborted fetus.”

“In fact, Pope Francis has stated that these vaccines are acceptable for Catholics to take,” Dr. Rasmussen added. “So, again, this doesn’t apply to every single religion, but people have been thinking about this. And at least in the Catholic faith, the Pope has issued his opinion, and that is that it’s morally acceptable for Catholics to do, and in fact they should because getting a vaccine is protecting your community and that is completely in line with Catholic ethical values of loving thy neighbor.”

Rasmussen also pointed out that, unlike the cell lines used for the COVID vaccines, there are a number of cell lines used to manufacture various other drugs and vaccines that are not obtained ethically.

“There’s another cell line that’s commonly used called HeLa cells that were derived from a Black woman in the 1950s who had cervical cancer,” she explained. “They were taken without her permission. Her family has seen none of the profits that have resulted from literally billions and trillions of HeLa cells being grown for various purposes all over the world.”

This is the subject of a book, The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, which was also made into a movie.

“There’s a lot of morally complicated issues that have to do with the origins of biomedical research,” Rasmussen said. “People really do need to read up and educate themselves on this and decide what is going to be morally acceptable for them, because ultimately this is something that you have to decide what you’re OK with.”

“But, in general, I think that monoclonal antibodies can be useful for COVID-19 treatment. Vaccines, obviously, I’m a huge supporter of,” Rasmussen noted. “The good that these products do can outweigh some of the moral questionability of the origins of some of the ingredients … used to make them.”

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That, again, is also the position the Catholic Church holds. Many other faith leaders have come to similar conclusions as well.

“But ultimately it’s going to be up to every person to look into their heart and decide what they agree with,” Rasmussen said. “That said, it’s also the responsibility of leaders to try to make those judgments and balance those moral conundrums when they are making policy, such as vaccine mandates, and deciding which religious exemptions are allowable and which are not.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Virologist explains the commonly used cell lines in COVID vaccines