Leaders from three prominent denominations in Australia have raised concerns about the use of foetal cell lines being used in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine after the Australian federal government signed a provisional deal with Oxford University that would see them ship 25 million free doses to Australia if the project proves successful.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed a 'letter of intent' with Oxford and UK-based biomedical company AstraZeneca last week.
However, the Oxford research team developing the vaccine are reported to be using cell lines from an electively aborted foetus, raising ethical questions for some religious leaders. Doctors have said in response though that many vaccines use this method and have been accepted in the past.
In a letter to Morrison - co-signed by Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies, and Greek Orthodox archbishop of Australia Makarios Griniezakis - the leaders argued that "any Covid-19 vaccine cultured on a foetal cell line will raise serious issues of conscience for a proportion of our population".
In light of the ethical concerns, Archbishop Davies told the Australian Broadcasting Network's AM radio show that he would "have to think very seriously" about whether he would receive the vaccine if the Oxford team is successful in developing it.
"To use that tissue for science is reprehensible," he said.
Davies said his decision as to whether or not to use the potential cure would also "depend upon the nature of the development of other vaccines".
"From what I've understood, there are so many places around the world on the hunt for this vaccine, which I'm certainly hopeful that there will be pressure on those countries to make it widely available," he added. "So I'm not putting Hobson's choice [take it or leave it] at this stage."
Archbishop Anthony Fisher said he would not deem it unethical if the Oxford vaccine was the only one available, but did note he was "deeply troubled" by the issue.
Clarifying his views on Facebook, he wrote:
"Whether this vaccine is successful or not, it is important that the government does not create an ethical dilemma for people. Along with the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia, I have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, asking the government to pursue similar arrangements for alternate vaccines that do not raise the same ethical concerns, so that Australians will have a choice when it comes to vaccination.
"There are currently 167 vaccines being researched, many of which do not use foetal cells in their development. It is in the best interests of the community that vaccination is widely taken up and this deadly disease defeated, and this will better be achieved if the vaccines available do not create an ethical quandary.
"I’ll have more to say on this in next week’s Catholic Weekly. In the interim, you might like to make your desire for an ethical vaccine known to your local MP."
More broadly, the Catholic Church's position on the issue is clear, as stated in its Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person) from 2008, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which asserts that researchers should be ethically bound not to use “biological material of illicit origins”, which includes the cell lines from any aborted foetus. The document does make room for exceptions, however, in cases where “grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify”.
"For example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin," it adds, "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".
Robert Booy, a University of Sydney professor of vaccinology, told the Guardian in Australia tat vaccines have been developed with cell lines from aborted fetuses for the past 50 years, and that Christian groups had previously accepted their use because of the “big distance between the cell line and the final vaccine”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified 169 potential vaccines currently being developed across the globe. Just 30 of these are at the clinical evaluation stage, including the one being developed at Oxford. Not all of these vaccines require live cells, with some being developed synthetically. Others are utilising cell lines from animals, such as hamsters.