Fact check: COVID-19 vaccine ‘morally acceptable,’ Vatican says, but some claims missing context

© Gregorio Borgia, AP Pope Francis puts on his face mask as he attends an inter-religious ceremony for peace in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, in Rome Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

The leader of the Catholic church supports vaccination against COVID-19 for Catholics, despite possible ties to aborted fetal cells, according to a Facebook claim.

“CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS !!!!!!!“ begins a post Dec. 22 by user Oscar El Blue, the owner of Border Network News, a YouTube channel.

El Blue referred to a screenshot of an article from Agence France-Presse titled “Vatican said getting COVID-19 vaccine ‘morally acceptable.’”

“The Vatican release a statement saying that it’s OK to get virus vaccines using abortion sale (sic) lines, this was approved today by the globalist pope Francis,” El Blue wrote in the caption.

The Vatican urged Catholics to get the vaccine, saying “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted foetuses in their research and production process,” according to the AFP article.

A Facebook post on Dec. 21 by another user makes claims similar to El Blue’s.

The post features a screenshot of the top of a Wall Street Journal article titled “Vatican permits use of COVID-19 Vaccines Linked to Abortion.” Its caption briefly summarizes the first sentence of the article – which mentions the moral acceptability of the vaccine – without additional context.

USA TODAY reached out to the posters for comment.

Fact check: Posts use 2019 hospital image to make false claims about COVID-19 vaccine

Did the pope approve of COVID-19 vaccines associated with aborted fetal cells?

On Dec. 21, the Vatican News reported that Pope Francis approved a statement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the morality of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

“In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed,” the statement says.

The CDR advised those who refuse vaccines “produced with lines from aborted fetuses” for moral reasons to take necessary precautions to avoid COVID-19 transmission.

The statement addresses when vaccines developed using aborted fetal cells should be used.

“When ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available,” it is “morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” the Vatican News reported.

The pope did not offer carte blanche approval of COVID-19 vaccines that used aborted fetal cells during development, as suggested in the online claim.

El Blue updated his Facebook post with a direct link to the CDR statement after USA TODAY reached out to him Dec. 23.

Fact check: Burnt oranges, brown sugar won’t restore senses lost to COVID-19

Are there any COVID-19 vaccines made with aborted fetal cells?

The use of cells derived from fetal tissue in clinical research dates back to the 1960s when Dr. Leonard Hayflick, a scientist at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia created WI-38 cells from an aborted four-month-gestation fetus.

Since then, Hayflick’s cell line has been used to create a multitude of vaccines against rubella, rabies, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles. Fetal tissue has been used to study HIV/AIDS, birth defects, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, among many others, an application that has sparked fierce social and political debate in the USA.

When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines, at least five candidates undergoing clinical trials use fetal-derived cell lines: from China’s CanSino Biologics, the University of Oxford partnered with AstraZeneca, Janssen (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson), the University of Pittsburgh and California-based ImmunityBio.

HEK-293, used by four of the developers, is a kidney cell line derived from a fetus aborted in 1972. PER.C6 is a proprietary cell line owned by Janssen that was created from eye cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985, according to Science.

The CanSino, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Janssen and ImmunityBio vaccines use a virus called adenovirus genetically altered to be harmless but loaded with SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein genetic code, necessary for viral entry into human cells. Similar to how Pfizer and Moderna’s messenger RNA vaccine operates by providing cells instructions on how to make anti-spike protein antibodies, the altered adenovirus delivers the spike genetic sequence so the body can make the antibodies itself.

The altered adenovirus cannot replicate on its own, and that is where the fetal-derived cell lines come in by providing their replication machinery and generating vast amounts of the virus.

Neither Pfizer nor Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine involves cells derived from aborted fetal tissue since mRNA development is a different technology. This was confirmed by UAB News, the news website for the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

“Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine uses cell lines that originated in fetal tissue taken from the body of an aborted baby at any stage of design, development or production,” UAB’s Sherri Blank reported.

The University of Pittsburgh uses the HEK-293 cell line to construct the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to stimulate an immune response once injected.

Fact check: Nurse who fainted after COVID-19 vaccination is alive and well

 Vatican citizens, employees will be vaccinated

Dr. Andrea Arcangeli, deputy director of the Vatican City State’s Directorate of Health and Hygiene, confirmed that residents, employees and their families will receive the Pfizer vaccine starting in January, according to The Associated Press, the Catholic News Agency and the Catholic News Service.

“We believe it is very important that even in our small community a vaccination campaign against the virus responsible for COVID-19 is started as soon as possible,” Arcangeli told Vatican News, according to Catholic News Agency.

The ingredients in the Pfizer vaccine appear safe for those with moral reservations, according to a letter the company sent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The only active ingredient is nucleoside-modified messenger RNA, or modRNA, which encodes SARS-CoV-2’s viral spike protein, USA TODAY reported. The rest are fats, salts and sugar.

Moderna’s vaccine is similar aside from a few additional components, such as vinegar and certain glycerols, according to an FDA fact sheet.

During his annual Christmas Day speech, Pope Francis pleaded with the world’s leaders to make the vaccine accessible to all, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“I plead with all the leaders of states, businesses and international organizations to promote cooperation and not competition and to seek a solution for all, vaccines for all, especially the most vulnerable and needy,” he said.

Fact check: COVID-19 pandemic is not a simulation

Our rating: Missing context

We rate this claim MISSING CONTEXT, based on our research. A claim that says the pope approved of COVID-19 vaccines that used abortion cell lines in its research ignored an official statement from the Vatican. The statement endorses vaccines that use aborted fetal cells during research and development if an alternative is not accessible. Citizens, employees and their families in Vatican City will receive the Pfizer vaccine next year.

Our fact-check sources:

Contributing: The Associated Press

Chief Nursing Officer Robin L. Steaban, left, who administered the vaccine, stands with nurse practitioner Lisa Flemmons, Dr. Todd Rice, nurse Cody Hamilton and respiratory therapist Sophie Whitaker after they received a COVID-19 vaccine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 17, 2020.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: COVID-19 vaccine ‘morally acceptable,’ Vatican says, but some claims missing context