Are Abortion-Free COVID-19 Vaccines on the Way?

Update 6/15/21: Recently, the Lozier Institute learned that Sanofi-GSK used abortion-derived HEK293T cells to produce pseudovirus in some of their confirmatory lab tests.  This was also the case for the Inovio and Novavax vaccine candidates mentioned in the article, the latter of which was reported this week to be close to seeking FDA approval.   While none of those three vaccines used abortion-derived cell lines in the design, development or production of their vaccines they did wind-up “abortion-tainting” their vaccines in the confirmatory lab tests. There are currently no vaccine candidates in the United States without some link to abortion-derived cell lines.

Recently, a South Carolina newspaper published an article entitled, “Who is refusing COVID vaccines in SC—and why? Here’s what we found.” A trio of reporters detail numerous reasons: distrust of the government; an “I’m healthy enough” attitude; waiting a bit longer to let others be the “bleeding edge”; and wariness of the rollout. But they didn’t mention moral objections. 

There is a split opinion in the Catholic Church about the morality of the vaccines currently in use. Many Catholic scholars and moral ethicists, including leading voices like Professor Robert George, have stated that the connection of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to abortion is so remote as to be acceptable. But some Catholics, such as Bishop Athanasius Schneider, reject this argument and argue that it’s immoral to take abortion-tainted vaccines. Other Catholics argue that it might be morally permissible to receive these vaccines, but it would be a better prophetic witness to refuse them and wait for completely ethical alternatives. But even Catholics who believe it is morally acceptable to receive the current vaccines acknowledge that a completely abortion-free option is the ideal.

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So, what is the status of these ethical vaccine choices? There are three possibilities currently in development, from Inovio, Sanofi, and Novavax.

Inovio claims to have “assembled a global coalition of collaborators, partners and funders” to develop and test their vaccine candidate, INO-4800. Their collaborators include the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Wistar Institute, as well as Université Laval in Quebec, Canada, and Fudan University in Shanghai, China. They report having received funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Defense, and they have done clinical trials in South Korea and China. They started phase 2 testing in November 2020, and according to their website they are awaiting “appropriate regulatory guidance and external funding” for “vaccine production and scale-up.” There is no projected date given.

A vaccine candidate seemingly further along in the process is the vaccine of Sanofi and its partner GlaxoSmithKline. Forbes magazine reported that “The joint Sanofi and GSK effort has run into challenges and their program is significantly behind early projections.” But Sanofi-GSK announced May 17 “the results of the Phase 2 trial of their COVID-19 recombinant vaccine candidate which demonstrated strong immune responses across all adult age groups. A global pivotal Phase 3 study is expected to start in the coming weeks.”

The Sanofi website shows their adjuvanted recombinant protein-based vaccine candidate currently in a “New Phase 2.” Sanofi is also partnering with Translate Bio to develop a different COVID-19 vaccine—an mRNA-based vaccine—which is still in the Phase 1/2 stage of testing, which started March 12. 

Under “Operation Warp Speed,” the government granted Sanofi-GSK $300 million to start developing a COVID-19 vaccine and pre-ordered 100 million doses for delivery in 2020 for $2.1 billion with the option to purchase another 500 million this year. The government also entered into an agreement with Novavax “worth $1.6 billion to complete development, test and produce 300 million doses of its candidate vaccine.” 

In April, WebMD reported that “Novavax’s COVID-19 Vaccine May Be Authorized Next.” And a few weeks ago, Politico called the Novavax vaccine “The most promising coronavirus vaccine you’ve never heard of.” The article pointed out that Novavax has never brought a product to market but that it was the dark-horse candidate to bolster supplies in the U.S. and beyond. 

However, on May 11, the New York Times reported that Novavax’s “highly protective vaccine would not be authorized in the United States or Britain until at least July, and that it would not reach peak production until the end of the year.” Novavax’s CEO, Stanley C. Erck, did say, “Nearly all of the major challenges have been overcome, and we can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel.” That wasn’t good enough for Wall Street: Novavax traded down 17% upon the release of that statement.

On May 22, the stock regained some lost territory when Novavax announced that “it signed a memorandum of understanding to ‘explore the expansion of COVID-19 vaccine activities in South Korea.’” Novavax has been working with SK Bioscience to focus on the South Korean market with its NVX Cov-2373 COVID-19 vaccine, once it is approved, and also on a Covid/flu shot combo.

The Novavax vaccine, 96% effective against the original coronavirus in a global phase 2 study, apparently also is effective against variants. “A preliminary analysis of data from its U.K. Phase 3 trial showed that the vaccine was 89.3% effective and included protection from the U.K. variant B.1.1.7. The company also announced that the vaccine was 60% effective in a Phase 2b clinical trial in South Africa and included protection from the South African variant B.1.351.2.”

There is concern, however, that if approved for emergency use by the FDA, the Novavax vaccine will be hard to get in the United States because it will be shipped abroad. Besides the South Korea focus announced by the Maryland-based company, the Observer reports that “President Joe Biden hinted that Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate could be the next to receive emergency use authorization in the U.S. and would be shared with countries in need of aid. Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine is cheaper and easier to store than the mRNA vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. It’s exactly what the world needs right now as the rollout of AstraZeneca’s and Johnson & Johnson’s affordable shots is paused due to safety concerns.”

It may also be what is needed right now by U.S. Catholics with ethical concerns about the existing vaccines. 

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


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