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‘Ethically’ Scrutinized COVID Drugs Pose Questions for Pro-Life Catholics

Catholic bioethicists express concern about attempts to find a COVID-19 vaccine or therapeutics using cell lines created from fetuses aborted nearly five decades ago. (Photo: CNS/Dado Ruvic, Reuters)

WINDSOR TERRACE — The drug President Donald Trump praised, saying it cured him of his recent bout with COVID-19, was tested with a “cell line” derived from an aborted fetus in the 1970s.

Therefore, should pro-life Catholics refuse to take the dual-antibody therapeutic cocktail, REGN-COV2?

Under certain criteria established by the Vatican, it is allowable, said Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a Catholic bioethicist. However, he also noted that taking such a drug should be avoided.

He said, “Although the Church has been clear that one may receive such drugs, it is also the case that we have a duty to protest the disturbing fact that aborted materials are still being used in many sectors of biomedical research.

“Many people and many Catholics are surprised to learn about the widespread and continuing use of these cells in biomedicine and research.”

Father Pacholczyk, director of education for The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, stressed that Catholics must vigorously call for drugs developed and tested without cells or tissue from aborted babies.

“The distinction exists between testing and manufacturing,” he said, “but for both of these aspects of drug or vaccine development, the use of cell lines from abortions should be avoided as much as possible.”

Scientists worldwide accelerated research and production of new therapeutic drugs in vaccines to fight COVID-19 since the virus that causes it began its deadly sweep of the planet at the end of 2019.

The Food and Drug Administration reported that more than 550 COVID-19 drug development programs were underway as of Oct. 12. Meanwhile, more than 350 drug trials were under review by the FDA.

The agency had also authorized five drugs for “emergency use,” but REGN-COV2 was not yet one of them. Its manufacturer, Regeneron, filed an emergency use authorization request with the FDA on Oct. 7, the same day Trump made his video testimonial about the drug.

After the video, media attention over REGN-COV2 vaulted over other similar drugs under development. It thus became public knowledge that the drug’s history has a connection to HEK293T. This cell line’s origins reach back nearly 50 years ago from kidney cells taken in a Dutch laboratory from an aborted female fetus. The parents’ identities and the reason for abortion are unknown.

“HEK293T cells were used to create a ‘pretend virus’ to test our antibodies against,” said Alexandra Bowie, spokeswoman for Regeneron. “HEK293T is a doubly-transformed cell line, and we would not classify it as ‘tissue.’”

Bowie told The Tablet on Oct. 12 that HEK293s “are considered ‘immortalized’ cells (not stem cells) and are a common and widespread tool in research labs.”

“HEK293T wasn’t used in any other way,” Bowie added, “and fetal tissue was not used in this research. We did not use human stem cells or human embryonic stem cells in the development of REGN-COV2.”

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. is based in Tarrytown, Westchester County, New York. Bowie said its scientists “have been working tirelessly for nearly the whole year to advance REGN-COV2 in record time for patients impacted by COVID-19.”

“Based on promising early data,” she added, “we hope this investigational drug will be deemed safe and effective and ultimately help improve human health.”

Father Pacholczyk explained how Catholics could receive the drug, even though testing was conducted with HEK293T.

Quoting from the 2008 Vatican instruction “Dignitas Personae (n. 35),” Father Pacholczyk said, “grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify’ the use of these products, especially in the absence of alternatives.

“‘Grave reasons’ would, of course, include danger to one’s health, allowing us to receive medicines or vaccines ‘developed using cell lines of illicit origin.’”

“This is permissible,” Father Pacholczyk said, “because, in part, one would not be cooperating with the abortion that happened many decades earlier, and one did not have any role in making the decision to use the cell line by the pharmaceutical company.”

But Father Pacholczyk also noted the same Vatican document declares that Catholics now live ‘in the context of the urgent need to mobilize consciences in favor of life.’”

“Alternatives to the use of these cells is critical,” he said, “and part of the duty of the moment is to increase awareness about the problem.”

To that end, bishops in the U.S. joined pro-life medical professionals in April to draft a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of “ethically” produced drugs to fight COVID-19.

Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City penned the first signature. He chairs the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“We are aware,” the letter reads, “that among the dozens of vaccines currently in development, some are being produced using old cell lines that are created from the cells of aborted babies.

“Fortunately, there is no need to use ethically problematic cell lines to produce a COVID vaccine or any vaccine,” the letter reads. “Other cell lines or processes that do not involve cells from abortions are available and are regularly being used to produce other vaccines.”

The USCCB’s pro-life committee has praised the Trump administration for creating a fetal tissue ethics review board within the National Institutes of Health. Archbishop Naumann applauded the administration in August after the review board recommended against funding for some projects involving fetal tissue research.

Last week, however, it was unclear what Trump knew about how HEK293T was used to test the drug he called “a cure.”

“Some people don’t know how to define therapeutic,” he said. “I view it differently; it’s a cure.

“I heard about this drug. I said, ‘Let me take it.’ It was my suggestion. I said, ‘Let me take it,’ and it was incredible the way it worked. Incredible.”

Trump said he also tried the antiviral drug Remdesivir, which is approved for emergency use by the FDA, although supplies were limited in mid-October because of testing.

Medical experts have said it was premature for Trump to say the drug cured him, noting that Remdesivir could’ve played a role. They also noted Trump took the steroid dexamethasone to fight inflammation in his lungs.

The president, however, believed REGN-COV2 did the trick. He pledged to win approval for the drug and make it free for everyone, although he provided only a few details about how that would get done.

“I want everybody to be given the same treatment as your president because I feel great,” Trump said. “So we’re going to get you the drug. It’s going to be free. We’re going to get it into the hospitals as soon as you can, as soon as we can. And you’ll see some amazing things happen.”

The federal government also recognized the drug’s potential in July when it awarded Regeneron $450 million to develop REGN-COV2 as part of “Operation Warp Speed” — the public-private partnership launched to fast-track the development of vaccines and therapeutics to fight COVID-19. The money came from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

Regeneron officials said if REGN-COV2 is OK’d for emergency use authorization (EUA), “the government has committed to making these doses available to the American people at no cost and would be responsible for its distribution.”

The officials made that comment in the company’s Oct. 7 EUA request. The document also stated that it had 50,000 doses available.

“And,” the officials added, “We expect to have doses available for 300,000 patients in total within the next few months.”