As the Philippine government continues to roll out coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines to its target of 70 million people, anti-vaccine advocates shared a social media post in May wrongly claiming COVID-19 vaccines contain fetal tissue. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: COVID-19 vaccines do NOT contain ‘chopped parts’ of aborted fetuses)
Similar false narratives have circulated as early as November 2020 in several countries, undermining trust in vaccination using morality-based arguments. Others stated the jabs were made from lung tissue or fetal cells from aborted fetuses.
These largely stem from misconceptions on the use of fetal cell lines in vaccine development and testing.
What exactly are fetal cell lines, and how are scientists using it in vaccine research? Here are three things you need to know:
1. What are fetal cell lines?
Fetal cell lines are multiplied, lab-grown cells derived from tissue of electively aborted fetuses in the 1960s and 1970s. A single fetal cell can be multiplied and freezed, and used for the research and development of vaccines.
“These fetal cell lines are not tissues. They’re not chopped up parts … No scientist goes out and uses chopped up parts of tissues in [vaccine] manufacturing,” said scientist Isagani Padolina, a member of the Department of Health’s Vaccine Expert Panel, in an interview with VERA Files Fact Check.
“It doesn’t grow into a person. It just stays as cells,” he added.
Padolina, who is also head of research and development at Pascual Pharma Corp., said fetal cell lines are ideal in vaccine research because these are easy to propagate given the right conditions, food, and medium.
He added that fetal cell lines are also easy to transfect, which means they can be easily injected with DNA that will carry instructions to create specific types of proteins used for vaccine research and production.
The use of fetal cell lines for vaccine research originated from Leonard Hayflick, an American cell culture expert who managed to extract cells from the lung tissue of a three-month-old female fetus aborted by a Swedish woman in 1962.
Before fetal cell lines were available, scientists used cells from animals to develop vaccines and conduct cancer research. The cost of killing animals, as well as the presence of potential diseases in animal cells, led to a search to develop a “clean” cell line from electively aborted fetuses.
2. What role do fetal cell lines play in vaccines?
Fetal cell lines are used in any of these three stages of vaccine development, according to American infectious disease expert James Lawler of Nebraska Medicine:
Lab-grown cells have been used to create vaccines for illnesses such as rubella, rabies, hepatitis A, chickenpox, and the original shingles.
For COVID-19 vaccines, some biopharmaceutical companies used fetal cell lines for their testing and development phases.
Meanwhile, the Gamaleya Research Institute used HEK 293 to produce the human adenovirus vector, which is the key ingredient in its COVID-19 vaccine. The same cell line was used to test Sputnik V’s effectiveness.
Fetal cell lines can be used to grow the weakened viruses put in some vaccines, which help build immunity against diseases.
Apart from Gamaleya, AstraZeneca also used HEK 293 to reproduce a weakened and non-replicating version of the adenovirus causing the common cold in chimpanzees, which was programmed with instructions to create proteins that would help the human body fight the virus that causes COVID-19.
3. Do COVID-19 vaccines contain baby parts?
COVID-19 vaccines do not contain cells or tissues from aborted fetuses.
Vaccines developed with the help of fetal cell lines, such as those of Astrazeneca and Gamaleya, use a purification process to ensure that no fetal cell line fragments remain in the drug.
“‘Pag pinurify mo na siya hindi ka na nag-i-inject ng cell line sa katawan mo (When a vaccine is purified, you don’t inject cell lines into your body anymore),” Padolina said.
“If you make beer, you don’t see a lot of yeast cells in the beer because it’s been filtered. Vaccines undergo a stricter purification process because we administer it to people,” he added.
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