Fact check: debunking misconceptions and answering questions about the COVID-19 vaccines

North Texas Catholic
(Mar 8, 2021) Feature

An artists representation of the COVID-19 virus.

That we’ve all been affected in some way or another by misinformation or lies is an old reality. 

Consider Logically, the world’s largest dedicated fact-checking, fake-news debunking company. In 2019, its team of data scientists, pro fact-checkers, journalists, investigators, developers – and yes, artificial intelligence — discovered that a troubling 12 to 14 percent of articles about the U.K. and Indian elections were unreliable and contained misinformation.

Enter 2020. A global pandemic, homegrown extremists, an American election, and of course, loads of new misinformation. Logically just entered the U.S. market in summer 2020, but I can imagine their misinformation stats will far outpace the ones from 2019.

Similarly, there has been copious misinformation regarding the COVID vaccines — specifically, concerns regarding morality and Catholic teaching. To address these head on, the NTC spoke with experts in the field of morality and ethics, and drew information published first-hand by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its committees on ethics and pro-life.

Is it true that some of the vaccines combatting COVID-19 have a connection to abortion?

U.S. Bishops: Yes. Several decades ago, tissue harvested from the bodies of aborted babies was used to create certain cell lines for research purposes. The cells in these lines are, in effect, the descendants of those cells that were originally harvested. They have been made to replicate themselves and some cell lines can be reproduced indefinitely. These abortion-derived cell lines are used as a “factory” to manufacture certain vaccines (e.g. rubella, chickenpox, some of the COVID-19 vaccines, etc.) The cells themselves, however, are not present in the vaccines that patients receive.

Do the COVID-19 vaccines use abortion-derived cell lines?

U.S. Bishops: As of the date of this writing, hundreds of vaccines for COVID-19 are in development worldwide, and more than a dozen are in the final stages of testing. Some don’t use abortion-derived cell lines at all, some have used such cell lines to test the vaccine’s efficacy, and some are using such cell lines in the development and/or the production phases.

There are currently three vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson) being distributed for use in the United States, and there are others that are likely to be made available in the coming months (e.g., AstraZeneca, etc.) Neither Pfizer nor Moderna used an abortion-derived cell line in the development or production of the vaccine. However, such a cell line was used to test the efficacy of both vaccines. Thus, while neither vaccine is completely free from any use of abortion-derived cell lines, in these two cases the use is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion. The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines raise additional moral concerns because an abortion-derived cell line is used not only for testing, but also in development.

As Catholic Christians is it OK if we are inoculated with these vaccines?

U.S. Bishops: Given that the COVID-19 virus can involve serious health risks, it can be morally acceptable to receive a vaccine that uses abortion-derived cell lines if there are no other available vaccines comparable in safety and efficacy with no connection to abortion. If it is possible to choose among a number of equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. If a vaccine with no connection to abortion-derived cell lines is not readily available, vaccines that used such cell lines only for testing would be preferable to those that use such cell lines for ongoing production. Such choices may not be possible, however, especially in the early stages of vaccine distribution. In that case, one may receive any of the clinically recommended vaccines in good conscience with the assurance that reception of such vaccines does not involve immoral cooperation in abortion.

What has the Vatican said regarding the permissibility of receiving these vaccines?

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D.: Some Catholics try to imply that the true mind of the Church is actually opposed to the reception of abortion-associated vaccines (despite both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict having been vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine). They suggest that the real teaching of the Church is somehow being re-appropriated in the wake of the new phenomenon of COVID-19. In the face of such claims, it can be helpful to remind people, “This is actually nothing new” — ever since 2005, following careful and extensive examination of the issue, and on multiple occasions, the Church has concluded and taught not only that it is permissible to receive vaccines produced using these problematic cell lines when there is a proportionate reason such as a threat to one’s health, but also that we have a duty to push for alternatives and to apply pressure so that the use of such cells does not continue. 

This was stated first in 2005 in a document from the Pontifical Academy for Life. It was stated again in 2008, in a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was stated again in 2017 in a document from the Pontifical Academy of Life. Finally and most recently in December of 2020 another document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith articulated the same conclusions. 

Could vaccines relying on injecting patients with mRNA change our genetic makeup and fundamentally alter who we are as humans, moving us into a project of Transhumanism?

Fr. Tad: Any incorporation of new genes into our chromosomes from a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine would be an exceedingly rare occurrence, if it were to occur at all. It is actually very difficult to get the genetic information of mRNA to integrate into our chromosomes, partly because this would mean a reverse directional flow of the so-called Central Dogma of Molecular Biology: our DNA or chromosomes are read (“transcribed”) to produce mRNA, which is then read (“translated”) to make proteins. Even if the accidental and unintentional incorporation of an mRNA message into our chromosomes were somehow to occur following vaccination, this would not mean that we were creating “Human 2.0,” since those genetic changes would not be expected to affect our sex cells, and therefore would not be transmitted to the next generation. Vaccinating people with an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, therefore, does not imply that we are “remaking man” or heading down the path of Transhumanism.

Does the use of hydrogel nanotechnology to deliver these mRNA vaccines mean there will be microchips implanted in my body?

Fr. Tad:  No microchips are present in vaccines. Hydrogel nanotechnology refers to the “lipid nanoparticles” which encase the mRNA. This is a glorified way of saying “very small oil droplet.” Lipids are what our cell membranes are composed of, so when the mRNA vaccine is injected, the lipid of the vaccine particle merges with the lipid of the cell (like two oil droplets merging) and the piece of mRNA is delivered to the inside of the cell (“transfection”).

These “lipid nanoparticles” could theoretically be misused to deliver other controversial substances into the body like microchips, but this does not mean they should not be used for valid purposes, like delivering life-saving mRNA vaccines during a pandemic.

Is receiving this vaccine the “mark of the beast” cited in the Book of Revelation?

Bishop Olson: That notion is incompatible with our mainstream Catholic theology of Revelation in Scripture and tradition. I think that’s a fundamentalist — a narrow fundamentalist interpretation of this. And I don’t think authentic Scripture scholarship bears that out.

What can we Catholics and others who uphold the sanctity of life do to protest against the use of abortion-derived cell lines?

Bishop Olson: I think the first step is, of course, awareness of this. Secondly, all these corporations are publicly traded corporations. And so I think that for those of us who invest, we have a responsibility as investors, we can help change the culture by, in a sense, putting pressure on corporate leadership. And I think those are some things that we can do. Most importantly, we must pray, but also to take the steps necessary to bring change about.

Fr. Tad: We still face a real duty to push back and make known our disagreement with the continued use of these cells by researchers in the pharmaceutical industry and academia. We can do this in several ways. We can write a letter to the editor to heighten public awareness, or contact the pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines, urging them to discontinue their use of abortion-derived cell lines. If they do so, we should also thank them. We can similarly initiate discussions with friends or relatives who work in research labs about whether their company or university uses cells derived from abortions.

How else can we care for our neighbors’ health during this time of pandemic?

Bishop Olson: No vaccine is going to be 100 percent effective, nor has it ever been, but it helps mitigate the spread of a disease. But let’s not forget other good practices that we have in public health. The washing of hands, the covering of one’s mouth when they sneeze. If you’re ill, don’t go to church, don’t go to school, don’t go to work. I think this has also enabled us to develop further outreach, like for homebound faithful who were here before COVID.

[Livestreamed Mass] is something more that we’ve been able to offer them. It’s not meant to be a replacement for participation in Mass. It never is. But the obligation to attend Mass, while essential to our faith, is not to supersede an obligation to love my neighbor by preventing the spread of illness, especially for people who are in a more vulnerable population.

I know many people are inconvenienced by the wearing of masks, and among some, there’s a demand that we do away with them. But I think our current protocols have been effective in preventing a super spread. They have been effective in helping people to be able to participate in the liturgy — if they’re willing to do so. These protocols have especially helped reduce spread to those who are more vulnerable to contagion, like the elderly. So, I still think that for the near future masks are going to be required. And I think we have to do that for the sake of the common good, and for love of our neighbor.

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Bishop Michael Olson studied at the Center for Health Care Ethics in the Catholic Tradition for five years and holds a doctorate in moral theology from the Academia Alfonsiana in Rome. He also served as community representative on the Ethics Committee for Research Involving Human Subjects at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston.

Father Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and serves as Director of Education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. He writes a monthly column called “Making Sense of Bioethics,” which is regularly published on NorthTexasCatholic.org.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released multiple statements in the past two months regarding the COVID-19 vaccines. The Committee on Doctrine and the Committee on Pro-life Activities were some of the major contributors to these documents, including those titled “Moral Considerations Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccines” and “Answers to Key Ethical Questions about COVID-19 Vaccines” (both of which were referenced verbatim here).

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