Faith and Vaccinations
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Faith and Vaccinations

Questions and Answers about COVID-19 Vaccinations
with Dr Elizabeth Allan

Some people are asking the question whether there is anything inherently contrary to our Christian faith in being vaccinated.

Faith in God, for a Christian, is a relationship with Him through His Word and by His Spirit. So this section is not intended to supersede or override that; but to offer some thoughts on the question of whether there is anything fundamentally contrary to our Christian faith in being vaccinated.

 

The miracle of the human body

The human body is an amazing miracle and every cell within it is an extraordinary, intricate miracle! So many biochemical pathways, so many instructions being sent and received, so much happening in time and space - all within one cell… It truly is a wonder that it all works. And that is only one cell out of trillions in our body!

Truly we are fearfully and wonderfully made,’ as king David wrote in Psalm 139:14

And God made all this. When I became a Christian while carrying out scientific research many years ago, what I knew about Biology only increased my awe of God. And it is this same God who designed an amazing, intricate, defence system within us – the immune system.

 

Vaccines cooperate with the way God designed our immune system

Vaccines cooperate with the way God designed our bodies; they do not usurp, replace or circumvent the defence mechanism that God has put within us.

Vaccines act as an abrupt wake-up call to the immune system, and show it what a new enemy looks like. Our immune system makes new recruits and goes into training, like creating crack marksmen to recognise and destroy that particular enemy. So that when the real enemy comes, it is ready and prepared!

Vaccines against COVID-19 that specifically target the external ‘spike’ protein of the virus, train the immune system to recognise the ‘uniform’ that the enemy wears –– and target anything wearing it.

Think for a moment of your body as a country with different, individual cells involved with defending it as being like soldiers in an army. The immune system is very complex and varied so these soldiers will be all over the country, protecting the areas assigned to them.

In this scenario, one particular group of soldiers are part of what is called the innate immune system – the first line of defence.

When someone is about to be vaccinated the defence system is totally unaware of it. The soldiers think everything looks fine; they’re just doing routine patrolling and monitoring.

Then suddenly - a massive trumpet blast from the lookout tower at the point of vaccination! It looks as though an army is coming against them and is about to invade!

Instantly the innate immune system goes into action, all guns blazing, to blast to bits anything in sight that looks alien! If it’s green, yellow, or blue with horns when it should be red with no horns – don’t ask questions – shoot first! It’s what God has created them to do. (To any Immunologist out there reading this – please excuse me if I’ve mangled your field with a bad analogy - hopefully it makes the point.)

 

Sheep in wolves’ clothing

What these cells don’t realise at this stage, is that these aliens are acting like sheep in wolves’ clothing…sent there on purpose as a massive training exercise.

This all buys time for experts (cells which are part of the adaptive immune system, including antibodies and T cells) to be recruited and trained to recognise, seek out and destroy this specific enemy in the event that the real wolf comes along – the wolf in wolves’ clothing – the virus itself.

Training is all part of the Christian life – whether training in the ways of the Lord, of righteousness, of distinguishing between good and evil (see, for example Proverbs 22:6, Luke 6:40, Hebrews 5:14). We are more effective if we are trained.

So it is with the immune system that God has put within us. It is more effective if it is trained to recognise a specific enemy in advance.

So I do not see vaccination as being fundamentally in conflict with our Christian faith.

 

Pastor Colin Urquhart

On Sunday 21 February, Pastor Colin Urquhart spoke about how we as believers are to listen to the right voice - the voice of our heavenly Father - in the midst of the noise and uncertainty around us. With so many theories, conspiracies and differing agendas all vying for our attention it’s important that we still ourselves and listen to what God is saying to each one of us individually.

Pastor Colin said it was a privilege and a blessing for both him and his wife, Caroline, to receive their first doses of the vaccine just a few weeks ago. A privilege because so many people have lost their lives in the past 12 months to this disease and so many more are still waiting to be vaccinated against it. And a blessing because this provided added protection. Throughout this pandemic, they, like many Christians around the world, have been believing and speaking God’s protection over their lives.

 

Psalm 91 and Matthew 4:7

We love Psalm 91:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust’.

Surely He will save me from the Fowler’s snare, and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover me with His feathers, and under His wings I will find refuge.
His faithfulness will be my shield and rampart.

I will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day;
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at mid-day.

A thousand may fall at my side; ten thousand at my right hand,
But it will not come near me.”

(Psalm 91:1-7, personalised)

But does that mean that accepting the offer of being vaccinated is somehow rejecting God’s protection for our lives?

Jesus also said: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7) He could have put His Father to the test by throwing Himself down from the highest point of the Temple and being rescued supernaturally – just as the devil was tempting Him to do in Matthew 4:4-7. And yes, God His Father could have protected and rescued Him supernaturally, but that was not what His Father was telling Him to do.

Not putting the Lord to the test is all part of dwelling in His shelter. We wouldn’t step in front of a bus ‘believing’ that God would protect us. But a virus such as the one that causes COVID-19 is an invisible enemy. Just because we can’t see the virus doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, or that it can’t be there – it is just as real as the bus. So it makes sense to take precautions. We don’t have to be fearful, or in unbelief of God’s protection to take up the offer of being vaccinated.

 

INcontext International

Gustav Krös of INcontext International has written a very helpful article on what our approach as Christians should be to the issue of COVID-19 vaccines. The following are some of the paragraphs from the article, published on 20 January 2021:

The debate around whether to use a COVID-19 vaccine or not, was already a common topic of discussion even before the first vaccine was approved. However, the moment it was officially approved and in use, the number of opinions, posts, and discussions skyrocketed. The sad reality about this heated debate is that the Church has not been spared – it has already caused widespread division, confusion, and fear among Christians.

As Christians, however, ‘division’, ‘confusion’, and ‘fear’, are not values for which we are supposed to be known. In John 17:20-23, Jesus tells us that through our unity the world will know that God sent Him, and in 2 Timothy 1:7 we are told: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (NKJV)

For Christians, it has become a daily battle to maintain a “sound mind” because we live in an era of ‘information overload’, prolific news coverage, as well as ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts.’ Each person can go to their preferred news source to get the necessary ‘facts’ that support his/her point of view. Unfortunately, many Christians get tossed back and forth by various opinions – the current ‘hot topic’ being the COVID-19 vaccine.

To address the vaccine topic, it is important to remember that we are dealing with three licensed COVID-19 vaccines in the UK, and more are still being developed. So, whenever a claim is made regarding “the” COVID-19 vaccine, you need to ask yourself whether this pertains to all the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved thus far, or whether it is only applicable to some, or one of them? ...sweeping statements concerning COVID-19 vaccines should be avoided; and where one encounters such sweeping statements, it is important to ask yourself whether the author of the message did his/her research on all the current vaccines available?

Another highly contentious debate focuses on the virus’ origin: whether man-made or natural. But what we cannot deny is that the virus is real – it is making people sick, and people are dying. There are also many other legitimate questions such as how contagious the virus is, the rate at which it mutates, and the long-term effects many people struggle with afterwards. This places each one of us in a position of responsibility, since my decisions can lead to someone else’s ill health or even death, and thus the decision whether to be vaccinated or not, should not be taken lightly...

Some words of wisdom from INcontext International!

In order to help you make an informed decision, we will be addressing some of the concerns that people have about the vaccines. Click on one of the questions below to find out more.

How were the vaccines developed so quickly?

A lot of people are understandably concerned about the speed of development of COVID-19 vaccines, especially for new types of vaccine such as mRNA and DNA viral vector vaccines which are discussed in more depth in the following question.

Normally it takes many, many years to develop a vaccine, so how has it been possible to develop this one so quickly?

 

1. Global effort

Firstly, there has been an extraordinary global scientific effort. Scientists across many fields have simply dropped their own scientific projects, abandoned early nights, weekends and holidays, and have worked flat-out in the global fight against this common enemy. [1] There has also been considerable cooperation between scientists.

The entire genome of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) was sequenced in China early in 2020, and was immediately made public internationally. Scientists were very quickly able to transfer that knowledge into practice.

Scientific articles on everything relating to SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses have also been made freely available globally without cost by most scientific journals, until the end of the pandemic.

 

2. Finance

Secondly, one of the frustrations of vaccine development normally, is lack of finance to progress from one stage to the next. However, there has been unprecedented financial backing behind the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

It can be very risky to invest finance into vaccine development, especially in the early stages as there is no guarantee of success. Many grant applications are therefore turned down, even if the vaccine itself would be excellent.

Added to this, is the fact that there are several stages in vaccine development: the initial exploratory research, experiment, design and development phase, followed by preclinical animal trials, then Phase I, Phase II and then large-scale Phase III clinical trials. Normally there can be long gaps in-between this sequence of events, when there simply is no funding.

However, far greater and faster funding has been provided globally for vaccine development during this pandemic – saving years.

 

3. Existing research

Although it might seem on the surface as though mRNA and DNA viral vector vaccines appeared from nowhere a year ago, both have had decades of research in the background. And both had already started to enter clinical trials before the pandemic began.

 

Existing mRNA vaccine research:

With mRNA, for example, it was first demonstrated in principle as early as 1990 that direct injection of mRNA into muscle led to production of the intended protein. Since then, there has been a long process of identifying and solving problems that are a hindrance to mRNA vaccines working in practice.

The first major mRNA breakthrough came in 2005 through the research of Professor Kariko, who now oversees the mRNA side of BioNTech, under Professor Sahin. And in recent years, the last main remaining problems with this type of vaccine have been solved.[2]

BioNTech have therefore been involved in developing mRNA vaccines, including against cancer, and had already started clinical trials before the pandemic began.[3]

Moderna had also been carrying out a Phase I clinical trial using an mRNA vaccine against the Zika virus when the pandemic began, and released early encouraging results in April 2020.[4]

 

Existing DNA viral vector vaccine research:

Meanwhile, DNA viral vector vaccines (of which the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is one), have had a similarly long background of research. Professor Sarah Gilbert, a Professor of Vaccinology and others at the University of Oxford, had already been involved in developing a DNA viral vector vaccine system against the Zika virus and against MERS (another serious coronavirus disease). The vaccine against MERS had passed through a Phase I clinical trial, and had also demonstrated effective protection in non-human primates. It was about to start a second Phase I/II clinical trial in Saudi Arabia at the end of December 2020.[5]

 

Experience with other serious coronaviruses / likely target for vaccines:

Another factor that contributed to the speed of the development was that, thanks to earlier research into the other serious coronavirus diseases that have appeared in the last two decades, SARS and MERS, it meant that scientists already had a lot of experience with serious coronaviruses and problems of creating vaccines against them.

It also meant that they already knew which part of this new coronavirus would be very likely to be an effective target to use in vaccines: the external spike protein.

 

4. Speed of mRNA vaccine production

mRNA vaccines are able to be produced much faster than most conventional vaccines, since they do not require to be cultured in cells.

 

5. Many people willing to take part in clinical trials

Yet another aspect that helped speed things up was that many people were willing to participate in clinical trials. Normally, it can take a long time to find the number of participants needed to take part in Phase III clinical trials. However, with the urgency of the situation, many tens of thousands enrolled.

 

6. Constant updates to Regulatory Authorities / Production of millions of doses ‘at risk’

To avoid delays in Regulatory approval, constant updates from research, animal trials and clinical trials were sent from the manufacturers to the Regulatory Authorities.

Pharmaceutical companies also took the risk of producing millions of doses before final approval was granted.

 

A Christian perspective:

Dr. Fazale Rana published an article on “The COVID-19 Vaccines and God’s Providence,” on 23 December 2020. As both a Christian and a biochemist, he gives his thoughts on how the mRNA vaccines were developed through research that has been ongoing for decades and how he sees God’s hand of mercy through it:

“As a Christian, I see a divine hand in the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines, reflecting God’s providential care for humanity…We were literally at the point of matriculating mRNA vaccines into large-scale human clinical trials at the precise point in time that the COVID-19 outbreak began. If this outbreak occurred even a few years earlier, I question if we would have been able to develop effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 with the same speed and have the capacity to rapidly produce and distribute large quantities of vaccines once the mRNA vaccine was ready to go.

The remarkable confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic with the advances in mRNA vaccines has one of two possible explanations: It’s either a fortuitous accident or a reflection of God’s providential timing and faithful provision to humanity. As a Christian, I choose the latter explanation. You might say that mRNA vaccines were prepared in advance for such a time as this.”

(Click here to read the full article by Dr. Fazale Rana.)


[1] For example: “The modern-day Curies: Meet the scientist couple behind 90% effective COVID-19 vaccine.” (14.11.2020) New York Post: https://nypost.com/2020/11/14/meet-the-scientist-couple-behind-90-effective-covid-19-vaccine/

[2] Sahin, U., Kariko, K. and Tureci, O. (2014) Nature Reviews: Drug Discovery 13:759-780. “mRNA-based therapeutics – developing a new class of drugs.

Pardi, N. et al (2018) Nature Reviews: Drug Discovery 17:261-279. “mRNA Vaccines – a new era in vaccinology.

“’Redemption:’ How a scientist’s unwavering belief in mRNA gave the world a COVID-19 vaccine.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/redemption-one-scientists-unwavering-belief-mrna-gave-world/

[3] Boisguerin, V. et al (2014) British Journal of Cancer 111:1469-1475. “Translation of genomics-guided RNA-based personalised cancer vaccines: towards the bedside.

Pardi, N. et al (2018) Nature Reviews: Drug Discovery 17:261-279. “mRNA Vaccines – a new era in vaccinology.

Pardi, N. et al (2017) Nature 543:248-251. “Zika virus protection by a single low-dose nucleoside-modified mRNA vaccination.”

[4] “Moderna’s Zika Virus Vaccine Data Supports COVID-19 Vaccine Approach” (14.42020) https://www.biospace.com/article/moderna-s-zika-virus-vaccine-data-supports-covid-19-vaccine-approach/#:~:text=The%20messenger%20RNA%20(mRNA)%20vaccine,and%20Infectious%20Diseases%20(NIAID).

[5] “COVID-19 Vaccine Frontrunner” (15.7.2020) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-07-15/oxford-s-covid-19-vaccine-is-the-coronavirus-front-runner

About the Oxford COVID-19 Vaccine” (19.7.2020) https://www.research.ox.ac.uk/Article/2020-07-19-the-oxford-covid-19-vaccine

Can the vaccines alter or affect your DNA?

1. How do mRNA vaccines and DNA ‘viral vector’ vaccines work?

Vaccination is like a trumpet-call to our immune system: that there is an enemy that needs to be destroyed. The vaccines then train the immune system to recognize and respond far more swiftly and effectively to the real virus, should we encounter it in the future.

To answer the question whether the vaccines can affect our DNA in the process, we first need to consider how the two differing types of COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the UK work.

 

(a) mRNA vaccines

There is a central dogma in Molecular Biology: DNA makes RNA makes protein. Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is a sort of middle-man in between a gene (which is a piece of DNA code) and the end-product, a protein.

An mRNA vaccine can therefore go straight into a cell and start making the protein you have instructed it to make. In the case of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, they consist of an mRNA sequence for the external ‘spike’ protein of the virus that causes COVID-19, encased in a capsule of fat.

This goes straight into the cell - into the cytoplasm - and starts working to make the virus’s external spike protein. That protein can be likened to a viral ‘uniform’ which our immune system sees as alien and needs to be destroyed. The virus itself is not in this vaccine. The viral ‘uniform’ (as discussed in the Introduction to this page) does not come with the enemy soldier inside it!

So our immune system makes antibodies to it, and also longer-term T-cells, so that if we ever encountered the real virus, it would instantly be recognized and destroyed.

Of the 3 currently licensed COVID-19 vaccines in the UK, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are both mRNA vaccines.

 

(b) DNA viral vector vaccines

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, on the other hand, is a DNA ‘viral vector’ vaccine. Unlike an mRNA vaccine which simply has to go straight into the cell (into the cytoplasm) and start making protein, this vaccine has to go all round the houses before getting to the same point – namely mRNA in the cytoplasm!

So, it first goes into the cytoplasm, then into the nucleus where the DNA for the spike protein is transcribed into mRNA. The mRNA is then matured and after that it is sent back into the cytoplasm - at which point it finally acts in a similar way to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which only had to go as far as the first step!

 

2. So, can COVID-19 vaccines affect your DNA?

(a) Can the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) affect your DNA?

No, mRNA vaccines won’t affect your DNA. If we go back to the central idea of Molecular Biology that DNA makes RNA makes protein – it doesn’t work the other way round: mRNA in a human cell wouldn’t make DNA.[6]

The other reason is that after vaccination, the mRNA would stay in the outer part of the cell (the cytoplasm). It would not enter the nucleus, and so would not change our DNA.

The mRNA also only stays temporarily in our cells before being broken down. It does not hang around, so that also means it won’t continue indefinitely making the spike protein.

 

(b) Can the DNA viral vector vaccines (Oxford-AstraZeneca) affect our DNA?

So what about DNA vector vaccines? The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is made from a weakened chimpanzee adenovirus responsible for a mild respiratory infection which was modified to prevent it from replicating and being infectious in our cells. This was then combined with a stretch of DNA inserted into it that codes for the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus - the viral ‘uniform’ without the soldier as in our analogy.

This combined DNA enters the cell nucleus. Fortunately, one of the reasons that adenoviruses are particularly chosen to make vaccines, is that they would not insert into our DNA.

Once there the DNA is transcribed into mRNA, then matured before being returned to the cytoplasm, at which point it would act in the same way as mRNA vaccines.

Some people are concerned about ‘recombinant DNA’ in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (as described on the packaging), as a result of a video that has been shared widely on social media. However, this refers to the process described above in the first paragraph of this section (2(b)) - it does not refer to combination with our DNA after vaccination.


[6] The exception to mRNA not making DNA in human cells would be if the virus was a ‘retrovirus’ which comes with its own reverse transcriptase, which reverse transcribes its own viral RNA into DNA. Fortunately, there are only a few retroviruses that infect humans, and coronaviruses are not retroviruses.

Can the vaccines make you infertile?

The theoretical query and what scientists say about it

The question of whether COVID-19 vaccines could cause problems with pregnancy, or even permanent infertility, arose from a specific theoretical query. This was to do with the similarity in the genetic sequences for part of the spike protein used in the vaccines, and that for a protein involved in the development of the placenta in the womb during pregnancy, called syncytin-1.

First, this query has been dismissed by many scientists around the globe, and there is no evidence to support it. For example,

Professor Brent Stockwell of Columbia wrote that:

“Any hint of similarity between syncytin-1 and the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein (which is used as part of the vaccine) is extremely remote…There are hardly any parts of the two proteins that are even vaguely similar, and they are far more distinct than would be needed for cross-reactivity of immune responses.” [7]

Director of Global Media Relations at Pfizer, Jerica Pitts:

It has been incorrectly suggested that COVID-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a shared amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 and a placental proteinThe sequence, however, is too short to plausibly give rise to autoimmunity.” [8]

Professor Ian Jones, a Virologist from the University of Reading wrote that:

"Syncytin-1 is…completely unrelated to the SARS [spike] protein” and the risk of infertility is “therefore essentially fictitious.” [9]

 

Practical example

If the concern about antibodies cross-reacting with syncytin-1 was valid, one would expect problems for women trying to become pregnant in the course of clinical trials.  Especially since antibodies would already be very high by 4 weeks into the trial. So for example, they might be expected to have difficulty in becoming pregnant successfully, or to have a miscarriage.

However, as a precaution which is normal in clinical trials, pregnant women were not allowed to take part, and women of childbearing age could only be included if they agreed to take strict precautions against becoming pregnant during the vaccination period and for at least 28 days afterwards.

However, in the course of a Pfizer-BioNTech Phase III Clinical Trial of around 44,000 participants, half of whom received the vaccine and half placebo injections - at some point 12 women who had been vaccinated became pregnant, as did 11 who received only placebo injections.  There were also, sadly, two miscarriages – but these were both in the placebo group, not in the vaccinated group.

The clinical trial was not designed to assess this issue. But these initial observations are nevertheless very encouraging.

 

Other studies

The effect of COVID-19 on pregnancy and related issues is being monitored and studied globally, and this has just been reviewed extensively by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (19.2.2021).

There are also some results from preclinical animal studies relating to COVID-19 vaccines and pregnancy which, although at an early stage, show encouraging results.

And on 15 February, the ClinicalTrials.gov website posted notice of a Pfizer-BioNTech study specifically designed to study the safety of vaccination during pregnancy.


[7] https://www.britannica.com/list/the-top-covid-19-vaccine-myths-spreading-online

[8] https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/12/10/covid-vaccine-debunking-claims-causes-infertility-sterilization/6497018002/

[9] https://fullfact.org/online/placenta-protein-vaccine/

Are any of the vaccines unethical?

How the question arose

The question of whether there was an ethical problem with any of the vaccines, arose from a short video about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine a few months ago where claims were made about some of the individual terms used on the packaging of the vaccine and in an experiment.

There were a number of misunderstandings, one of which was that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine ‘definitely’ had the lung tissue of an aborted male foetus in it and that you would be injected with fragments of it if you had that vaccine. You will be relieved to know that it does not, and you wouldn’t be. However, it was shared widely on social media, and as a result, many believed it to be true.

Some are also under the misapprehension that babies are currently being aborted and used in the manufacture of vaccines because, they believe, they would have to be currently aborted to get live cells. However, that is not the case, as cell lines are already ‘live’ cells.

So, fortunately, neither of the above scenarios is true.

It may be helpful at this point to explain what cell lines are, and how they are generated:

Cell lines originate from a cell or a group of cells isolated from tissue and grown in conditions that support their continued multiplication. They multiply very rapidly, producing vast numbers of more ‘live’ cells. They can continue to do so for many decades, even indefinitely.

They are well characterised and standardised for medical and scientific use.

The misunderstanding about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine arose partly as the cell line noticed in an experiment (MRC-5) was not in fact used in the vaccine, and was only used indirectly in a preliminary experiment.

That cell line would not have originated from an elective abortion, since abortion was illegal at that time (1966), unless it was to save the life of the woman.

No original foetal cells would have been present in the experiment, since that cell line was generated about 55 years ago.

However, a different cell line was used in generating that vaccine; and even although the video gave wrong information, it highlighted the issue that some vaccines use cell lines, which may cause an ethical issue.

But even then, all is not as it seems…

 

mRNA vaccines and cell lines

First, two of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently approved by the UK Government are the two mRNA vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. These do not use any cells or cell lines at all in vaccine production; but rather are made directly from a DNA template which arranges nucleotides in the right order. They have a wonderful simplicity, as discussed further in the question: Can the vaccine alter or affect your DNA? [link to above question]

No cells, human or otherwise, are in these mRNA vaccines.

Cells from the HEK293 cell line were sometimes used in tests following production of the vaccine. Some are therefore concerned that the vaccine would not have been released for public use without the ‘post-production’ use of HEK293 cells.

However, this is not the case with mRNA vaccines. The crucial tests – for example, whether serum from people who had been vaccinated will ‘neutralise’ (1) the real SARS-CoV-2 virus [10] or (2) ‘variants of concern,’ [11] use the real virus itself, or a modified variant of the real virus. These experiments do not use HEK293 cells.

On the other hand, serum from people who had been vaccinated was also tested against what are called ‘pseudoviruses.’ These use a completely different virus (e.g. VSV), which has segments from minor variants of the real virus attached to it. These tests were carried out to provide an indication of how broad the effectiveness of the vaccine might be. [12] HEK293 cells were used in this. However, these experiments were not required for the vaccine to be released for public use.

 

DNA viral vector vaccines and cell lines

With the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, there is more direct involvement with the HEK293 cell line, as the vaccine is cultured in HEK293 cells (rather like flu vaccines may be incubated in chicken eggs).

The vaccine is then very highly purified, removing all trace of HEK293 cells, before the vaccine is finalised. HEK293 cells are also used in the post-production stage for testing.

 

So, what is the HEK293 cell line?

The HEK293 cell line was established about five decades ago. It was originally derived from foetal kidney cells obtained from a single foetus in 1972 in the Netherlands by Professor Alex Van der Eb at the University of Leiden.

The cell line was created a year later, in January 1973, by Professor (then Dr.) Frank Graham, [13] who was investigating cancer and hoped to use the cell line for that purpose.

 

But what was the source of the cell line?

We tend to understand terminology through the lens of the way it is used in the times we live in, unless otherwise indicated. For many years, it has therefore automatically been assumed that the HEK293 cell line came not just from a single ‘abortion,’ but from a voluntary, elective abortion.

But the term ‘abortion’ was also used to describe ‘therapeutic abortions’ which would save a woman’s life, or to save them from serious harm. It was also used to cover ‘spontaneous abortions’ - the professional terminology for miscarriage used at the time in the medical and scientific community.

Professor Frank Graham, a researcher in Professor Van der Eb’s laboratory at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands at the time, explains very clearly that:

“Abortion was illegal in the Netherlands until 1984 except to save the life of the mother. Consequently, I have always assumed that the HEK cells used by the Leiden lab must have derived from a therapeutic abortion.” [14]

And since the University Hospital of Leiden was connected with the University and would have been the source of the cells, the original cells could also have come from a spontaneous abortion, i.e. a miscarriage.

Very confusingly, the term ‘abortion’ could even be used on its own whether it referred to a spontaneous, therapeutic or induced abortion. So if a scientist or doctor simply referred to ‘abortion,’ it was not clear what type of abortion it referred to. [15]

The use of professional terminology in this way is completely unexpected to our modern ears, especially that miscarriage or therapeutic abortion to save a woman’s life could be referred to by the term ‘abortion’ on its own.

So, please bear in mind when reading about cell lines and vaccines, that in general it is usually mistakenly assumed that the HEK293 cell line must have been derived from an elective abortion.

Even some widely-used, good fact-checker websites have unintentionally used the wrong information on the source of the foetal cells for the HEK293 cell line. As one such website states: “we know the abortion was performed at a hospital in Leiden, that the mother was healthy and elected to have the abortion, and that the father was unknown.”

However, the above information comes from the Minutes of an interview with the U.S. FDA Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee on 16 May, 2001 (page 99), and in fact relates to the source of the PER.C6 cell line, and could not refer to the HEK293 cell line, which the Minutes also make clear. Unfortunately, as the original fact checker website is particularly trusted, the information has been picked up by other fact checker websites and so has spread further.

The PER.C6 cell line was also created in the Netherlands, but was obtained from an abortion in 1985, a year after the Termination of Pregnancy Act 1984 liberalised abortion. The cell line itself was created ten years later.

This cell line is definitely derived from an elective abortion, and is used in at least two other vaccines being developed. However, at the time of writing (24/2/2021),* no COVID-19 vaccines approved by the UK Government use this cell line.


* Update (27.2.2021) on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (using the PER.C6 cell line):

The section on “Are any of the vaccines unethical,” has been written to provide you with information; not to tell you what decision to make. (Too many are already telling everyone what to do – usually not to be vaccinated!) But rather, to help you take ethical questions in vaccine development, particularly those using cell lines, to the Lord in prayer, and to make an informed decision.

Remember that there is no such thing as ‘the vaccine.’ There are many different types of vaccine, and this includes different ethical issues attached to different vaccines.

With the vaccines currently approved (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca): some may feel reassured knowing that there is no foetal tissue in the currently-approved vaccines; others may feel that any historical link, however indirect and remote, is too much, even although elective abortion would not have been involved. Yet others may feel somewhere in-between, reassured about some vaccines, and not so sure about others; or still in the process of praying it through.

However, there is an important update on one of the vaccines not yet approved by the UK authorities:

The UK has pre-ordered one of the vaccines that uses PER.C6 cells (from Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson).

Things move fast, and shortly after the original email on ‘Faith and vaccinations’ was sent out on 24 February, the 10pm news reported that the U.S. FDA staff had recommended that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine be approved by the FDA Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee. That Committee met on 26 February and approved the vaccine for use in the U.S.A.

The Regulatory Authority in the UK, the MHRA, had commented earlier in February that they would need the final data from Janssen Pharmaceuticals before they could approve the vaccine. However, since the U.S. has now approved it, it may not be long before the UK does also.

It is a DNA viral vector vaccine, and the way it works is therefore very similar to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

However, instead of a cell line which originated from either a single therapeutic abortion to save the woman’s life, or from a single spontaneous abortion (a miscarriage), it uses the PER.C6 cell line, which as described above, originated from an elective abortion. [16] This clearly raises additional ethical issues.

The Janssen vaccine is cultured in the PER.C6 cells, and then highly purified to remove the cells. Although the vaccine will not contain any of the original foetal cells from 1985, there is nevertheless, a historical link back to the original elective abortion, which will be a serious ethical concern for many. And some would definitely choose not to have this vaccine.

The Janssen vaccine has not yet been approved in the UK, so is currently not one that you would be offered. However, if you have not already been vaccinated, it would be best to settle in your heart how you would respond if that is the vaccine you are eventually offered.

When praying about being vaccinated yourself, it is helpful to remember what St Paul said in his letter to the Colossians: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart.” (Colossians 3:15)

In the Greek, it is even more specific: “Let the peace of Christ act as an umpire in your heart.” An umpire gives the decision: Is it in? or is it out?

For a Christian, with any decision it is important to be in a place of peace in our hearts with God. Often we may have to pray through something before we come to that place, and that can take some time. However, if you have come this far, you are probably more than willing to do that.

Although we have been told in the UK that we cannot ‘pick and choose’ which vaccine to have, that was really on the basis of how effective we perceived the different vaccines to be.

However, if you have a conscientious objection to any of them, then pray. And if offered one you are concerned about ethically, consider asking (preferably in advance, as only one type of vaccine may be available on the day) if you could have one that you would be happy with ethically. You may be surprised at the favour you receive.

There is also a need for new ethically-derived cell lines to be created. Please pray for those working towards this.

Whatever your decision about the vaccines, it is between you and the Lord. It is important not to judge others for their decision, and to remain in an attitude of love and unity with your fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord.


[10] Sahin, U. et al (2020) “BNT162b2 induces SARS-CoV-2-neutralising antibodies and T cells in humans.” medRxiv [Preprint]

Jackson, L.A. (2020) NEJM 383:1920-1931. “An mRNA Vaccine against SARS-CoV-2— Preliminary Report.

[11] Xie, X et al (2021) Nat. Med. Feb 8th (Online ahead of print) “Neutralization of SARS-CoV-2 spike 69/70 deletion, E484K, and N501Y variants by BNT162b2 vaccine-elicited sera

[12] Sahin, U. et al (2020) “BNT162b2 induces SARS-CoV-2-neutralising antibodies and T cells in humans.” medRxiv [Preprint]

[13] https://www.courthousenews.com/how-fetal-cells-from-the-1970s-power-medical-innovation-today/

[14] https://www.courthousenews.com/how-fetal-cells-from-the-1970s-power-medical-innovation-today/

[15] 1967: Treffers, P.E. Population Studies 20(3):295-309. “Abortion in Amsterdam.” (Dept. Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands: uses the terminology ‘spontaneous abortion’ for miscarriage in the article.)

1984: Christiaens, G.C.M.L. and Stoutenbeek, Ph. Lancet 324:571-572. “Spontaneous Abortion in Proven Intact Pregnancies” (Dept. Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University Hospital Utrecht, the Netherlands. Comment that: “In the Netherlands, spontaneous abortion is defined as the spontaneous expulsion of a fetus before 16 weeks of gestation.”) They use both the term ‘abortion’ and ‘spontaneous abortion’ for miscarriage in the article.

1985: Beard, R.W. et al, 1985, Lancet 326:1122-1123. “Miscarriage or Abortion?” Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, London. Appealed to colleagues in a letter to the Lancet, to change their terminology concerning miscarriage; not to refer to it as ‘abortion.’ “Doctors use the word ‘abortion’ regardless of whether it was a spontaneous or induced event, yet our patients always speak of ‘miscarriages’ unless they have had a termination of pregnancy. It seems likely that the words have been interchangeable for many centuries…We would ask doctors, indeed all health professionals, to start using the word miscarriage rather than abortion for a spontaneous pregnancy loss before 28 weeks of pregnancy…

We hope that your readers will agree that a change from ‘abortion’ to ‘miscarriage’ is not just a semantic quibble but is well justified on humanitarian grounds.

2013: Moscrop, A. J. Medical Humanities 39:98-104. “’Miscarriage or abortion?’ Understanding the medical language of pregnancy loss in Britain; a historical perspective.” Points out the ambiguity of abortion terminology in scientific articles: “However, it remained ambiguously designated: ‘abortion’ was often used in the medical literature without a clarifying prefix (‘spontaneous’ or ‘induced’) to describe spontaneous pregnancy loss, induced termination of pregnancy or (deliberately exploiting the dual meaning of the term) both.

2021: Midwifery website, the Netherlands, February 2021: https://www.vkutrechtoost.nl/en/pregnant/miscarriage

Although using the term ‘miscarriage’ on the website, which was for patients, they explained that: “The medical term for a miscarriage is ‘spontaneous abortion.

[16] The decision to use the cell line will have been for scientific reasons, not because of the origin of the cells.

The information in this article was put together by Dr. Elizabeth Allan (BSc, PhD in Biological Sciences) and the Kingdom Faith leadership team.