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COVID-19 Vaccine: Interview with Dr Justo Aznar, Director of the Institute of Life Sciences of the Catholic University of Valencia

After the publication on June 12, 2020, in the “Science” Review, of the existence of six possible vaccines against COVID-19, for which cell lines were used for its production obtained from induced aborted human fetuses, Dr. Justo Aznar, former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, has published an ethical assessment of the issue.

Zenit talked exclusively with the Spanish Doctor, Director of the Institute of Life Sciences of the Catholic University of Valencia, and member of the Royal Academy of Medicine of the Valencia Community, who offers keys to understand how a vaccine is made and what factors must be taken into account to act always in favor of life, with all the scientific rigor it entails.

Dr. Aznar clarifies that the use of vaccines that use cell lines obtained from aborted fetuses poses bio-ethical problems and, resting on publications of the Pontifical Academy for Life (in 2005 and 2017), he indicates that if ”vaccines against COVID-19 are made available to the public, in whose production cells of aborted human fetuses were used voluntarily, they could be used temporarily until other similar vaccines were available, which were produced without using such types of fetal cells,” as “the moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination to cover the health of others is no less urgent.”

Cellular Lines of the 70s and 80s

 Dr Aznar also says that in the case of the six lines, which work with such fetal cells, “it’s not cells obtained from current abortions, but cells produced from two fetal cell lines generated in the decades of the 70s and 80s of the last century from induced abortions,” and he reminds that the Vatican Academy announced that today” it’s no longer necessary to obtain cells from new voluntary abortions and that the cell lines in which the vaccines have been based are derived from two lines of fetuses originally aborted in the decade of the 60s of last century.”

Recently, the Director of the Bioethics Observatory of the Catholic University of Valencia published a Report that has two well-defined parts: one scientific, which addresses the state of current research to find a vaccine against COVID-19, and which specifies what cellular lines of aborted human fetuses have been used in vaccines, and a second that reflects, from the moral point of view, if these latest vaccines can or cannot be used.

Moderna Vaccine

 Justo Aznar makes use of the World Health Organization’s report, dated May 27, 2020, for the scientific debate, and two Reports of the Pontifical Academy for Life, published in 2005 and 2017, for the moral debate.

By way of conclusion, the Bioethics expert states that “only one clinical trial exists in phase 2, that of Moderna/NIAID in which fetal cells have not been used.” It is “possible that it will be available to the public parallelly to the two trials in which cells of aborted human fetuses have been used.”

Appeal to the Scientific Community

 Therefore, Aznar specifies that if at some point these three vaccines were available (the two that use cells of induced aborted fetuses and that of Moderna), “undoubtedly, from the moral point of view one would have to use the one that did not use human cells of induced aborted fetuses for its production.

Nevertheless, Dr. Aznar strongly recommends that scientists, Ecclesiastical Authorities, social organizations, and also private individuals, encourage “through all possible moral means so that all necessary efforts will be made in the execution of vaccines in whose production the cells are not used of human fetuses of induced abortions.”

Here is the interview with Justo Aznar, Medical Doctor, Expert in Bioethics, and Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

* * *

–Q: Why are fetal cells used in research for vaccines? What are the benefits?

–Dr. Aznar: Foetal cells are very undifferentiated cells and, therefore, very useful to cultivate viruses, or some proteins that they contain, which are then used to immunize the person receiving the vaccine.

–Q: From a Christian anthropological view, why would it not be ethical to use a vaccine elaborated with fetal cells of induced abortions?

–Dr. Aznar: If cells of induced abortions are used directly, a means is being used that is morally illicit to obtain something, even if <if that something> is good. An illicit means can never be reconciled with an illicit end.

–Q: According to the two Reports published by the Pontifical Academy for Life (in 2005 and in 2017), Catholics will be able to be vaccinated “temporarily” with this vaccination (produced from cell lines of aborted fetuses). What does this mean?

–Dr. Aznar: It intends to affirm clearly that, if the vaccine produced with fetal cells is the only one in the world, it can be used while there is no other that has been produced without using this type of cell.  Therefore, it’s a temporal legitimation of the lawfulness of its use. Quoting the 2017 Report of the Pontifical Academy for Life “the moral obligation must be taken into account to guarantee the vaccination for others’ health coverage which is no less urgent.”

–Q: When a vaccine against COVID—19 is found, are there expectations that it will be made available to all, including countries of the Third World? Is it likely to be so?

–Dr. Aznar: Always, when there are lucrative ends, licit on the other hand in the production of some drug, in this case vaccines, it’s difficult to know if the governmental organizations, pharmaceutical firms or research institutes that produce them, will want to reduce their benefits for the sake of solidarity with the citizens of developing countries, but it would be very praiseworthy if it were so.

–Q: Of the 136 projects underway for the vaccine, only in six are cellular lines obtained from induced aborted human fetuses for the vaccine’s production, as the “Science” Review points out. What other possibilities are there as “primary matter” in research for a vaccine against COVID-19?

–Dr. Aznar: Vaccines are certainly trying to be produced without the use of fetal cells. The United States National Institutes of Health, in collaboration with the Moderna company, are developing a vaccine using ARN, namely, without requiring cells of aborted human fetuses. Other companies, such as Sandi, Inovo, and Shenzhen Geno – Immune Medical Institute, are also doing so.

Moreover, if in our latest Report we said there are approximately 136 projects underway to try the execution of a vaccine against COVID-19, and that of these only six use fetal cells, it can be deduced that the other 130 must be using an alternative way to the use of those cells.

–Q: In addition to this one, the COVID-19 disease has posed some ethical dilemmas. There was also talk of “triage” carried out in some hospitals of the countries affected by the pandemic. What other ethical conflicts are we facing?

–Dr. Aznar: The need to select the patients to whom the necessary medicines can be applied to treat them properly when the resources available to health professionals are scarce, is certainly a moral and professional problem very difficult to solve, but that’s the reality. We studied this subject in our Observatory in a previous Report.

–Q: What is the process for the elaboration of a vaccine? In this case, does a vaccine against a new coronavirus point to new challenges for this process? What are they?

–Dr. Aznar: There are six steps in the elaboration of a vaccine. In the first place: identification of the pathogen, its vital cycle, way of transmission, infectivity mechanism, pathogenic factors, and genetic identification. In the second place: synthesis and production of the antigen, biological or of synthesis, for the trial. The third step is to assess pre-clinical studies, such as cell cultures and inoculation in animals used for experimentation. In the fourth place, clinical studies are carried out in humans in three phases:

–Phase I: A small sample (20-80 subjects), with whom its safety is assessed.

–Phase II: A greater statistical sample, with the evaluation of safety, immunogenicity (immunological response), dosage, and administration guidelines.

–Phase III: A larger statistical sample of thousands of people. The safety <factor>continues to be assessed (secondary effects, counter-indications, interactions) as well as its efficacy.

Arriving at the fifth point, one proceeds to the pre-commercialization: sanitary authorization, production, <and> quality control. To complete this period implies some two years of work. The total period from the beginning of the process can take a decade and, finally, we speak of commercialization: pharmaco-therapeutic control, constant quality control of the production process.

In the case of the coronavirus, the fundamental peculiarity of the process is the shortening of these terms, in part due to the advancement in identification techniques and genetic editions, and in part to the high number of scientific teams working on the subject, in addition to the speeding up of the bureaucratic formalities necessary for the authorization of the different phases, given the gravity of the pandemic.