DENVER, Colo. — Amid debate over the ethics of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate under development by Moderna, a Catholic microbiologist told CNA that while research connected to aborted fetal cells may have contributed to the knowledge base being used in the vaccine’s development, the actual production of the vaccine does not use cells of any kind, fetal or otherwise.
Deacon Robert Lanciotti, a microbiologist and the former chief of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s diagnostic and reference laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, told CNA that the manner of production for the Moderna vaccine is ethically uncontroversial — in contrast to several other common vaccines, which are grown in aborted fetal cells.
Traditional vaccines use dead or altered viruses, and viruses have to be grown in cell lines, Deacon Lanciotti said. Some vaccines that are based on altered viruses are produced by growing them in aborted fetal cell lines, rendering them morally illicit for Catholics to take except for grave reasons.
In contrast, the production of RNA vaccines does not use cells at all, he said. During his 30 years as a CDC scientist, Deacon Lanciotti’s specialty was producing RNA in the same reaction used to produce the Moderna vaccine.
Moderna’s vaccine is based on the coronavirus’ RNA, and uses a spike protein, or peplomer, from SARS-CoV-2 rather than cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.
The RNA is injected into the recipient, which induces their cells to produce the spike protein. This triggers the production of antibodies and T-cells by the recipient.
Moderna’s vaccine is not completely free of any connection to abortion, as there is evidence that the vaccines have some connection with the use of aborted fetal cells in the early stages of vaccine design.
However, Deacon Lanciotti said, there is a distinction between “design” and “production.” Although it may seem like a subtle difference, he said in this case it makes more sense to assess the ethicality of the production of the vaccine itself, rather than any pre-existing knowledge and understanding that went into its development.
“The association with aborted fetal cells and these RNA vaccines is so distant that I don’t think you would find a Catholic moral theologian that would say there’s a problem at all,” Deacon Lanciotti said.
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