New COVID-19 Vaccines: Goodish News, Ethical Issues

The first shipments of COVID-19 mRNA vaccine arrived in America this week.

Folks are getting immunized, including health care workers.

I think that’s good news.

But the pandemic isn’t over yet. This year’s New Year’s Eve street party in NYC’s Times Square will be virtual. Folks will, barring miracles, keep catching COVID-19 and occasionally dying as a result.

But we now have vaccines that should give an increasing number of folks at least limited immunity.

As I see it, all that’s good news.

I’d prefer focusing exclusively on the ‘up’ side.

But there’s an ethical problem with the new vaccines. I’ll be talking about that, and why getting immunized when it’s my turn still makes sense.


COVID-19 Vaccines and a Little History

Ethical Concerns

National Institutes of Health Stem Cell Information page.However, the three COVID-19 vaccines available in my country are bloodstained. Metaphorically.

Somewhere along the line in their development, an innocent person was killed and broken down for parts. That’s a bad idea and nobody should have done it.

But someone did.

Here’s what I read Monday, December 14:

U.S. Bishop Chairmen for Pro-Life and Doctrine Address Ethical Concerns on the New COVID-19 Vaccines
Public Affairs Office, USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) (December 14, 2020)

“On December 14, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement on the new COVID-19 vaccines. In their statement, the bishops address the moral concerns raised by the fact that the three vaccines that appear to be ready for distribution in the United States all have some connection to cell lines that originated with tissue taken from abortions….”

The USCCB Public Affairs Office statement includes a link to a longer, and somewhat more detailed, discussion of the issue.

That was a longer read.

But the full statement included details that help explain why the bishops aren’t condemning all COVID-19 vaccines. And why they’re not praising them, either.

HEK 293 Donor: RIP

An HEK 293 variant: 293FT cells.(Very) briefly, the three COVID-19 vaccines we’re looking at are from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

All three used the HEK 293 cell line.

Someone in the Netherlands, I don’t know who, had an unwanted preborn girl killed in the early 1970s. In 1973, biologist Frank Graham modified cells that had been harvested from her body.1

The HEK 293 donor would be in her late 40s now, if she hadn’t been killed.

But she’s dead, and now we’re dealing with an unpleasant reality.

Anyway, neither Pfizer nor Moderna used HEK 293 while designing, developing or producing their vaccines. They did, however, use HEK 293 cells in a confirmatory test.

I don’t see that as good news, but I think the USCCB committee is right. The connection with an early-1970s Netherlands homicide is remote.

On the other hand, AstraZeneca’s researchers used HEK 293 cells while designing, developing and producing their vaccine — and for confirmatory testing.

I think the USCCB bishops are right. Pfizer and Moderna testing their vaccines with cells from a murdered child is ethically dubious.

But the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines’ development “…is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion….” (“…Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccine,” USCCB (December 14, 2020))

The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine? Not so much:

“The AstraZeneca vaccine should be avoided if there are alternatives available….”
…Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccine
Chairmen of the Committee on Doctrine and the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, USCCB (December 14, 2020)

Options and “The Mark of the Beast”

Willowbrook State School.I would prefer living in a world where the HEK 293 donor had not been killed, and Dr. Mengele had not made use of specimens available at Auschwitz.

It would be nice if Doctors Clark and Parran had decided against using bottom-run Americans as guinea pigs in the Tuskegee experiments.

And I think that folks running Willowbrook State School should not have used their mentally disabled subjects in a hepatitis experiment.2

But I live in a world where all that happened.

I can’t change what has been done. I can, however, decide how I deal with today’s reality. And how I respond to the USCCB’s statement.

One option is complaining. Or invoking “the mark of the beast.”

Responses to “U.S. Bishops’ Pro-Life Chairmen Addresses Ethical Concerns on the New COVID-19 Vaccines – FULL TEXT,” Catholic News World (December 14, 2020)

“So the Catholic Church is telling us to take this vaccine which is the mark of the beast. No, not happening and may God have mercy on you!”
(Anonymous, comment on the CNW article)

“Ethics, how about morals? So they investigate these vaccines, but, do not investigate the Covid itself and the use of masks. The possibility exists that it has a 99.7% recovery rate. They say nothing about that or the suppression of therapeutics on twitter and Facebook. The UCSSB lacks investigative backbone.”
([name redacted] from my social media feeds)

I’d rather avoid both bandwagons. Although maybe I’d get more attention by demonizing someone. Or supporting a popular conspiracy theory. (October 21, 2020; July 23, 2020)

Statistics and Death

CDC: Clinical Resources for Each COVID-19 Vaccine.There’s a little truth to the “99.7% recovery rate” assertion.

India’s case fatality rate (CFR), for example, is only 2.3%. For every 1,000 folks in that country known to have had COVID-19, only 23 have died.

Singapore is doing even better. Their CFR has been only 0.05%. That’s 0.51 deaths per 100,000 COVID-19 cases.

America’s CFR in August was 3.3%. Probably. That’s better than an overall average of 4.24% in 82 countries, territories, and areas. I figure we’re doing pretty well. Not as well as Singapore or India. But, hey, we’re a little better than average.

Maybe. The statistics are controversial. CFR isn’t infection fatality ratio, IFR, and I gather that both terms are controversial, too.

I figure the bottom line is that most folks who get COVID-19 recover. On average, only four or five die from the disease.

Some, maybe 10% to 20%, don’t die; but don’t recover, either. That still leaves something like 75% of folks who catch COVID-19 getting better. This pandemic is survivable.3

Even at my age, with my medical issues, I might survive the pandemic bug. But I still think vaccinations are a good idea.

Love, Neighbors and the Common Good

The Masked Minnesotan.That’s because I think the American bishops are right.

Acting as if I love my neighbor is a good idea.

“…’In view of the gravity of the current pandemic and the lack of availability of alternative vaccines, the reasons to accept the new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are sufficiently serious to justify their use, despite their remote connection to morally compromised cell lines.
“‘Receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community. In this way, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.’…”
(“U.S. Bishop Chairmen … Ethical Concerns on the New COVID-19 Vaccines
Public Affairs Office, USCCB (December 14, 2020))

This ‘love my neighbor’ and ‘common good’ thing may sound like something from the Sixties, and that’s another topic.

But acting as if my neighbor matters, and seeing everyone as my neighbor, is not a new idea. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937)

Working for the common good isn’t limited to acting as if I value the life and health of my neighbors. But that’s in the mix. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, One/Two/Article 2 Participation in Social Life/II: The Common Good, 22582317)

Remembering, and Learning From, Our Past

Ideally, the HEK 293 cell line wouldn’t exist.

Dr. Mengele wouldn’t have sliced, diced and dosed prisoners.

The U.S. Public Health Service wouldn’t have lied to sharecroppers.

Mentally disabled kids at Willowbrook wouldn’t have been given hepatitis.

But it happened.

Refusing to use medical technology that was tested with the HEK 293 donor’s cell line won’t unkill her. Burying research done by Mengele and company won’t help their victims.

But maybe, if we let ourselves remember atrocities, we can learn from them. The Nuremberg Code and Declarations of Geneva and Helsinki suggest that this is possible. And that’s yet another topic, for another day.


First Vaccines Arrive: “…Healing is Coming”


(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Special shipping containers are being used to distribute the vaccine across the US”
(BBC News)

Covid-19: First vaccine given in US as roll-out begins
BBC News (December 24, 2020)

The first Covid-19 vaccination in the United States has taken place, as the country gears up for its largest ever immunisation campaign.
“‘I feel like healing is coming,’ said New York nurse Sandra Lindsay – among the first health workers given the jab.
“On Monday, as the US death toll topped 300,000, 150 hospitals across the country were to receive millions of vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
“The US vaccination programme aims to reach 100 million people by April….
“…The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received emergency-use authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday….”

I gather that folks who need immunization most, health care workers and oldsters living in nursing homes, are getting the vaccines first.

Makes sense to me.

I still haven’t learned when priorities and practicality will bring COVID-19 vaccinations to folks like me. My guess is that it won’t be until April, 2021. Give or take a few months.

But, as I said earlier, that’s okay. I’m willing to wait for my turn. (December 5, 2020)


The Inevitable Link Lists (and resources, too)

From the USCCB


(From USCCB, used w/o permission.)

Resources for Catholics During COVID-19

“Dioceses, parishes, and Catholics at home have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While stay-at-home orders are starting to be relaxed, there are till many restrictions on Mass participation, and access to other sacraments and parish activities is still limited in many areas of the U.S. Below are lists of resources for Mass, prayers, catechetical material, and reflections to help us all during this trying time….”

There’s a mess of resources here. I’d be talking about them today, but I didn’t find this home page & links until I’d nearly finished this post. Maybe I’ll get to them another day.

And here are links to the recent PR release and full statement:

My stuff

Stuff I’ve written that’s at least vaguely related:


1 COVID-19 vaccines, background:

2 A regrettable legacy:

3 Numbers, uncertainty and controversy:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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3 Responses to New COVID-19 Vaccines: Goodish News, Ethical Issues

  1. Thank you for writing a lucid post on the ethical issues involved in COVID-19 vaccines, with a link to the USCCB statement, which saved me the trouble of looking it up for myself.

    What I do not understand is, if the stem cells of the HEK 293 “donor” are living, how is she dead? Or if she’s alive, because her cells are alive, does that make it better or worse?

    • The second paragraph could start many philosophical discussions.

      My view is that the HEK 939 ‘donor’ is dead. She was killed during a legal abortion in the Netherlands.

      I think she’s dead because I think that a piece of a person is not the person. My hand, for example, is part of me: but it’s not “me.”

      It wouldn’t be “me,” even if someone removed my hand, killed me and kept the hand alive. (Reminds me of an old Mad Scientist B movie, and that’s almost another topic.)

      The girl is dead. But some of her still-living cells were harvested, and have been maintained as a population of single cells.

      How long the collections of single cells will survive is a good question.

      We’ve learned quite a bit since Alex Carrel’s cellular senescence experiment. It’s the ‘immortal chicken heart’ thing that gets re-told occasionally. Wikipedia has a more matter-of-fact discussion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexis_Carrel#Cellular_senescence

      • Dr. Carrell’s life was certainly interesting; thank you for the reference.

        My common sense says you are probably right that she is dead, but my philosophical mind finds this hard to reconcile with the idea that the rational soul is a unitary form which animates the entire body and is wholly present in every part of the body. But, as you like to say, that’s another topic — and a big one.

Thanks for taking time to comment!