Position Statement No. 14: The morality of vaccination – On vector vaccines

In the early months of 2020, when the news spread about an outbreak of the dangerous new respiratory disease COVID-19, hundreds research teams began a race against time to develop an effective and safe vaccine. Many of their attempts failed or were abandoned due to insufficient efficacy or safety, or on account of organizational difficulties.

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However, several vaccines have already successfully passed rigorous clinical trials and have been approved for use by specialized agencies such as the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Several more are likely to gain approval for use in the coming months. Those already approved include “vector vaccines,” which are created from inactivated human or animal viruses.

In the case of COVID-19, vector vaccines were created based on adenoviruses (DNA viruses that cause mild symptoms in humans, such as in the respiratory system), from which the genes forming key elements of the pathogen have been removed. In their place, a fragment of DNA has been inserted, allowing for the production of the S protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Such an artificial and defective virus – which cannot multiply in our tissues or cause disease – is known as a vector, i.e. a carrier that delivers to the cells of a vaccinated person the matrix for the production of S protein and, as a result, prepares our immune system for contact with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This is how the AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson vaccines work.

To be able to produce such vaccines, it is necessary to use cells specially prepared in the laboratory. Adenoviral vector elements are produced inside such cells, allowing for their mass replication. The result is a ready vaccine that is effective, yet safe and does not pose a risk of disease. Without such cells, this process would not be possible.

In recent days, controversy has arisen over this particular stage of vector vaccine production. Virtually all advancements in molecular biology, immunology and modern medicine have been based on tools created by nature. Even molecular or antigenic testing for SARS-CoV-2 would not be possible without the use of viral (reverse transcriptase) and bacterial (DNA polymerase) enzymes and human proteins (antibodies). Similarly, a large portion of drugs are actually produced not by machines, as one might think, but rather by cells or by whole organisms. In the case of vector vaccines against COVID-19, a key element is the use of human cells for producing the vectors. All cells used in the production of such vaccines originally come from humans and vary depending on which organ they were taken from and the age and sex of the donor. The cell lines used in the production of COVID-19 vaccines are HEK293 and PER.C6. Both lines were derived decades ago (in 1973 and 1985) from embryonic tissues obtained after abortion.

In this context, we would like to point out the following about the AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson vaccines:

First, the cells from which the HEK293 and PER.C6 cell lines were derived were collected decades ago and have been cultured in the laboratory since then. The abortions were not performed specifically to harvest the cells – rather, tissue fragments were taken following a procedure that would have taken place regardless. The use of these cells does not in any way affect abortions currently performed or promote abortion.

Second, the vaccine itself does not contain HEK293 and PER.C6 cells, just as drugs produced by bacteria or fungi do not contain fragments of these microorganisms. The cells serve only as bioreactors, responsible for a certain stage in the production of the vaccine. The preparation is then purified of any biological contaminants. This is one of the steps that is subject to strict scrutiny by numerous institutions, including the EMA.

Third, the vaccine saves lives. COVID-19 entails a very high risk for all of us, including pregnant women.

We strongly urge taking a rational approach to vaccination. Advocating against getting vaccinated with vectored vaccines at a time when we are seeing several hundred deaths a day from COVID-19 is irresponsible and means consenting to thousands of deaths and severe complications from the disease.

About the team

The Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences was set up on 30 June 2020. The team is chaired by Prof. Jerzy Duszyński, President of the PAS, with Prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University) as deputy chair and Dr. Anna Plater-Zyberk (Polish Academy of Sciences) as its secretary.

Other members of the team are:

  • Dr. Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw)
  • Prof. Małgorzata Kossowska (Jagiellonian University)
  • Prof. Radosław Owczuk, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)
  • Dr. Anna Ochab-Marcinek (PAS Institute of Physical Chemistry)
  • Dr. Wojciech Paczos (PAS Institute of Economics, Cardiff University)
  • Dr. Magdalena Rosińska, MD (National Institute for Public Health – National Hygiene Institute, Warsaw)
  • Prof. Andrzej Rychard (PAS Institute of Philosophy and Sociology)
  • Dr. Tomasz Smiatacz, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)