The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) today dialled back a message to Roman Catholics suggesting they choose alternatives to the AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19 because of its association with "abortion-derived cell lines."
The CCCB said earlier this month that parishioners should try to avoid taking viral vector vaccines like those produced by AstraZeneca-Oxford because they were developed using cell lines that may have been derived from an abortion nearly 50 years ago.
Today, however, the CCCB sent out what it called a "clarification" message saying that "all COVID-19 vaccines that are medically approved by the relevant health authorities may be licitly received by Catholics."
"Catholics are invited to be vaccinated, both in keeping with the dictates of their conscience and in contributing to the common good by promoting the health and safety of others," reads the clarification.
The CCCB is the national assembly of bishops recognized by the Vatican and chaired by Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon. The group said in a directive earlier this week that Canadian Roman Catholics should steer clear of the AstraZeneca vaccine because of lingering questions about the "moral permissibility of receiving vaccines whose development, production, and/or testing has involved the use of abortion-derived cell lines."
The conference of bishops said in that directive that, if given the choice, the faithful should opt for the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna because these vaccines are "morally acceptable to Catholics to receive since the connection to abortion is extremely remote."
"When provided with a choice between receiving different vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should always be preferred and chosen when possible," the conference said in the document, entitled Note on Ethical Concerns Related to Currently Approved COVID-19 Vaccines, which was sent to some parishes.
As for whether parishioners should take a vaccine at all, the bishops said in the directive it's a matter of "individual conscience" that should be made "in consultation with one's physician or health care provider."
Health Minister Patty Hajdu and other public health officials and experts have urged Canadians to take the first vaccine that is made available to them.
"Take the first vaccine that you're offered," Hajdu said in a recent interview with Rosemary Barton Live. "It's really, really important that you get protected from a really terrible case of COVID that could lead to your death."
No additional fetal tissue, says AstraZeneca
In a statement, AstraZeneca said its vaccine was produced using a biological manufacturing process that uses a common human cell line, HEK293, which was chosen by Oxford University because it was easy to use, grow and maintain. HEK293 is widely used in vaccinology.
"The cell line was originally derived from fetal human embryonic kidney cells from 1973 and has been maintained in cell banks across the world ever since to help researchers develop new medical treatments," said Carlo Mastrangelo, a spokesperson for the British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant.
"HEK293 cell lines are grown in a laboratory, generating copies from the original cells, and are not the same as fetal tissue. Several current human cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue. No additional fetal tissue has been added to the cell line since its creation."
Mastrangelo said human-derived cell lines can only be used if developers are "in full compliance with ethical guidelines."
Dr. Alyson Kelvin, a professor at Dalhousie University and a researcher in viral immunology and vaccinology, said these human-derived cell lines are commonly used in labs and "in almost every form of research."
"Although it might be upsetting to some people, the technology has helped advance some of our scientific breakthroughs, especially with COVID-19," she told CBC News.
The cell lines have been used to develop vaccines that protect humans against measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox, and in treatments for cystic fibrosis and haemophilia.
Kelvin said the original cells for these cell lines were extracted "decades ago" and it's very hard to pinpoint exactly where the cell lines now in use came from.
"I can understand there's an emotional or ethical concern for some people, but when we consider it was such a long time ago ... to make that link [to abortion] might not be as relevant as it may seem," she said.
"To even state that that's the source of these cells — it's very hard to make that claim."
Kelvin said cell biologists and the pharmaceutical industry are determined to move past this sort of "old technology," when developing new products. "I know everyone is working on ways of addressing this issue with biology," she said.
Lex van der Eb, a Dutch microbiologist and virologist, developed the HEK293 cell line at his lab at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
During a May 2001 appearance before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's vaccine advisory committee, van der Eb said the human embryonic kidney cells were extracted from a fetus "with an unknown family history" sometime in 1972.
"The fetus, as far I can remember, was completely normal. Nothing was wrong. The reasons for the abortion were unknown to me," he said.
Deputy public health officer concerned about 'misinformation'
The Vatican has issued its own guidance on the "morality" of COVID-19 vaccines. It is permissible for Catholics to take vaccines recognized as clinically safe and effective as long as they affirm that they do not condone abortions, the Vatican said.
"The licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses," the Holy See said in its directive about the morality of using some COVID-19 vaccines.
"The morally licit use of these types of vaccines ... does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even indirect, of the practice of abortion."
In its message today, the CCCB said it was merely restating "the position outlined by the Holy See in its Note of December 21, 2020 regarding the use of vaccines.
"The Note did not refer to, nor intend to question, the medical efficacy of any vaccine."
The Vatican guidance was written by Luis Ladaria Ferrer, a Spanish cardinal, and Giacomo Morandi, an Italian archbishop — both leaders of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the body responsible for defending Catholic doctrine.
The Vatican said vaccinations should be entirely voluntary and governments and pharmaceutical companies should work "to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience."
Some parish priests in Canada have been disseminating another document compiled by the Charlotte Lozier Institute — the research arm of the U.S.-based Susan B. Anthony List, which raises money for anti-abortion political candidates. That document tells concerned Christians which vaccines they should go for if given the opportunity.
The institute advises people against the AstraZeneca shot — and also the vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson's pharmaceutical division, Janssen, because it says it also was developed using "an abortion-derived cell line."
After blowback in the province of Quebec — the provincial health minister, Christian Dubé, said he "vigorously denounces" the CCCB's AstraZeneca policy — Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine issued a statement of his own today saying he considers taking a COVID-19 vaccine "an act of charity" that the faithful should consider as a "show of solidarity with collective health."
"In the present context of a health emergency, any authorized vaccine can be used in good conscience by believers," Lépine said.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said Wednesday he was concerned about religious groups spreading "misinformation" about the vaccines that have been approved for use in Canada.
"People should have no concerns about accepting them," he said in French. "I don't think it's really a concern, even for those who are religious. We know COVID-19 vaccines are a very important and effective tool to protect everyone."
He said the Public Health Agency of Canada is drawing up documents about the vaccines to share with religious institutions like the Catholic Church.
The church is vehemently opposed to abortion — it has called it a "moral evil" — and it has sought to foster what it calls a "culture of life" by discouraging both abortion and medical assistance in dying.
"Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception," reads the church's catechism, or book of beliefs.
"From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life," the catechism states.
According to census data, there are some 12.8 million Catholics in Canada, making them by far the largest religious group.
In a 2019 survey, Angus Reid found 10 per cent of Canadians identify as "practising" Catholics, while 22 per cent consider themselves "occasional" Catholics.