Coronavirus, vaccines, and Catholic ethics
Production for a new coronavirus vaccine is speeding along, but if one is developed to fight the pandemic, ethical questions remain about its development, and who should receive it first.
There are many workers in health care and in the public sector who could be considered a priority to receive any new vaccine, as they come into contact with many different people due to the nature of their profession, explained Edward Furton, ethicist and director of publications at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
“All of those who come into contact with many different people through their ordinary line of work, they would be first in line,” Furton told CNA. People in this group might include first responders, physicians, nurses, and other health care workers, police officers, and public transit employees.
Authorities should also consider prioritizing citizens living in crowded urban conditions, as “an effort to tackle the disease and the places where it’s most likely to spread,” he said.
Multiple vaccine candidates to fight the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) are entering the latter phases of production and testing.
On July 27, the biotech company Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced that their vaccine was entering phase 3 of clinical trials, during which it will be tested for safety and effective prevention of the virus in two doses.
Another vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford in collaboration with Astrazeneca has entered phase 3 of trials.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID and White House health advisor, has said that a coronavirus vaccine might not be developed, approved, and made widely available until several months into 2021.
The Trump administration is funding several vaccine candidates as part of “Operation Warp Speed,” including the two by Moderna/NIAID and the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca.
However, Catholics are also discussing whether an obligation exists for one to receive a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, if it is made available. And other ethical questions remain, such as the source of the vaccines being developed and the speed at which they are being produced.
Two bishops of the conference of England and Wales recently produced a paper on vaccination in light of the pandemic.
“We believe that there is a moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others. This is especially important for the discovery of a vaccine against COVID-19,” they said.
In 2017, the Pontifical Academy for Life addressed the issue of commonly-used vaccines in a document.
The academy said that, in the case of commonly-used vaccines against rubella, chickenpox, polio, and hepatitis A, there exists a moral obligation for Catholic parents to vaccinate their children in light of possible threats to the vulnerable caused by a resurgence in the prevalence of the diseases.
The academy said that “the moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others is no less urgent, especially the safety of more vulnerable subjects such as pregnant women and those affected by immunodeficiency who cannot be vaccinated against these diseases.”
However, those vaccines have been used for years, while a vaccine for the new coronavirus has yet to be fully developed, approved, and distributed.
One of the preeminent issues with current COVID vaccine candidates is whether or not they are being produced by using cell lines from aborted babies—something that Vatican has warned against in previous documents.
In the 2008 document Dignitas Personae, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that researchers may not use biological material of “illicit origin,” or cell lines from aborted babies, in developing a vaccine.
Parents gravely concerned about their children’s health could use the vaccine, the CDF said, but must “make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”
Some of the vaccines being developed to fight the new coronavirus are using the HEK-293 cell line, one commonly used in vaccines and which is derived from aborted fetal tissue. The candidate being developed by the University of Oxford and Astrazeneca is using this cell line.
Other candidates do not use this cell line, such as one being developed by Sanofi Pasteur. The Moderna vaccine candidate does not rely on this HEK-293 cell line for production. Rather, it uses a Spike protein, the gene sequence of which was determined through testing that involved a HEK-293 cell line. The gene sequence was not determined by Moderna scientists, but was simply selected by the company as the target for the vaccine.
Another ethical question that is being discussed is the rapid nature of the vaccine development. The prevalence and deadly nature of the coronavirus has prodded scientists to enter the final testing phase in record time, yet some ethicists are cautioning that a vaccine must be produced that is safe for widespread use.
“We all agree that it’s great to go as fast as possible, as safely as possible” during the production phase of vaccines, Joseph Meany, Ph.D., president of the NCBC, told EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.
However, he said, during the trial phases “safeguards exist for a purpose.”
“They should be very cautious about cutting corners when it comes to human safety” in the trials, he said.
If an ethical vaccine is developed and made available, the question remains as to the responsibility of Catholics to receive it.
“I think it would be reasonable for the government to issue a mandate, and require people to vaccinate, but there should also be exemptions—for obvious reasons,” Furton said.
Some legitimate exemptions that could be crafted might be someone’s medical risk or frail condition, he said, or other attributes that logically exempt them from being vaccinated.
If multiple vaccines are developed, and one of them is ethically sourced, Catholics would have a “moral obligation” to seek out one which is not ethically compromised, he said, unless for some reason the ethical vaccine is not distributed in someone’s immediate vicinity.
“Then the case might be different, depending on how difficult it would be to get it,” he said.