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Pro-lifers question Novavax’s fetal tissue claim

Did the company’s COVID-19 vaccine employ cell lines from aborted fetal tissue during testing?


Scientists examine a step in the vaccine purification process as they design updates to Novavax’s COVID-19 shots in a lab on May 24 in Gaithersburg, Md. Associated Press/Photo by Angie Wang, file

Pro-lifers question Novavax’s fetal tissue claim

Earlier this month, advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted 21-0 to recommend that the agency grant emergency use authorization to another new vaccine to fight COVID-19. If authorized, the vaccine from Novavax will be the fourth COVID-19 shot on the U.S. market. It is the only one that has been billed up front as being free from any links to aborted fetal tissue.

“No human fetal-derived cell lines or tissue, including HEK293 cells, are used in the development, manufacture or production of the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine candidate,” the Maryland-based biotech firm has said in statements to media. Some news outlets have dubbed the Novavax shot a viable alternative for pro-life Americans concerned about the other vaccines’ links with cell lines cultured from aborted fetal tissue decades ago.

A prominent pro-life research group, however, said the company’s claims were not entirely accurate. The Charlotte Lozier Institute argues that at least some of the Novavax vaccine’s confirmatory lab tests involved cells derived from an abortion.

The Novavax vaccine is manufactured using a method similar to that of traditional vaccines like smallpox and hepatitis. Unlike Pfizer’s and Moderna’s shots, which use genetic technology to instruct the body to make copies of COVID-19’s spike protein, the Novavax shot delivers artificial copies of the protein straight to the body. The body’s immune system takes care of the rest.

David Prentice, a longtime scientist who has worked in cell and molecular biology, says this vaccine is essentially passing around copies of “the face that’s on the ‘Wanted’ poster. It’s what our cells see first.”

Novavax produces these artificial spike proteins inside an insect cell. Prentice calls that “a more modern way to make proteins” and says it’s a great new approach to avoid using human cells.

Many biopharmaceutical companies have used well-known fetal cell lines—in which scientists take a few cells from an aborted baby and multiply them indefinitely—in vaccine development. Research labs often will either use a cell line called HEK-293, kidney cells taken from a baby aborted in 1973, or PER.C6, a retinal cell line from a baby aborted in 1985. Since these fetal cell lines can be replicated and frozen for years, scientists have been able to populate them in multiple labs for a variety of purposes. Just like a person may not remember his ancestors, researchers using these fetal cell lines may not even realize their links to abortion.

Pfizer, Moderna, and the makers of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine say there are no fetal tissue or cell lines in their vaccine. But Pfizer and Moderna both used a fetal cell line (HEK-293) for early-stage vaccine tests. The makers of the Johnson & Johnson shot used a fetal cell line (PER.C6) to grow the viruses used in its vaccine.

Novavax asserts fetal cell lines were never part of its process. But Prentice, Charlotte Lozier Institute’s vice president and research director, says his organization’s team of scientists combed through the scientific papers documenting Novavax’s step-by-step approach. He said they found some confirmatory lab tests that used fetal cell lines.

“Some of the tests, straight up and up, no problem,” he said. “But in a couple of the other tests, it looks like they contracted out to another lab, and that lab uses fetal cells.”

In one of the papers, published in the Oct. 20, 2020, issue of Science, researchers at one point noted differences between the protein produced in their insect cell and one made in HEK-293, the fetal tissue kidney cells.

Asked about that line in the Science paper, a Novavax representative said, “The reference in the Science paper to HEK-293 cells was based on well-established scientific knowledge, did not include our vaccine protein, and is completely independent of Novavax COVID-19 vaccine development.”

The company made the same statement when pressed back in February about the same question. Novavax did not elaborate further on which cells it used or which other labs conducted its testing.

Prentice agrees Novavax’s statement is technically true, but says the Science paper shows the company had engaged another lab to run tests on fetal cell lines. And he noted that Novavax Inc. is listed in the paper’s “Funding” section, alongside the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“This is not simply outside researchers doing their own independent experiments out of their own curiosity,” he said in an email, “but rather there seems to be some contractual relationship where Novavax wants or needs to see at least some part of the results of this study.”

Prentice said that based on his team’s reading of the research, Novavax will come close but ultimately fall short of convincing vaccine holdouts who want a shot clear of fetal cell testing.

“Novavax is going to fall into the same category as Pfizer, like Moderna,” he said. “I understand scientifically why you’d want to do that, but it’s just disappointing they resorted to some of these tests that still use that HEK abortion-derived cell line.”

The Charlotte Lozier Institute has published online a 14-page list of all COVID-19 vaccines being developed or already approved, along with descriptions of whether fetal cell lines were used somewhere in the process, based on its scientists’ reading of published research and reports.

Currently, about 10 percent of the U.S. adult population remains unvaccinated for COVID-19. In a December 2021 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core, 10 percent of Americans said getting a COVID-19 vaccine would conflict with their religious beliefs. One common religious objection is based on beliefs about abortion: Since all three FDA-authorized vaccines have links to cell lines derived from aborted fetuses, some with pro-life beliefs say even an indirect connection to an abortion in the distant past carries a “moral taint,” in Prentice’s words.

Some religious pro-lifers disagree. They believe the vaccine’s benefits to personal and communal health outweigh the concern about using an abortion byproduct, especially since it does not involve ongoing abortions.

Prentice, who is immunized against COVID-19 himself, says he came to his decision to vaccinate based on risk factors and his own understanding of the research. Ultimately, he says, everyone has to wrestle with the question and come to his or her own decision.

—WORLD has updated this story with additional comments from David Prentice.


Juliana Chan Erikson Juliana is a correspondent and a member of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area with her husband and 3 children.

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