Maybe it’s me, but I couldn’t see where Jim Wells was coming from in a recent Belfast Telegraph article about your views on Covid vaccines. Here’s Jim, as reported on TV, which might give an idea why he was confused.
“It is not an anti-vaccine issue, it is an ethical issue. I’ve had a lot of Christians say to me, ‘Look, we are not opposed to vaccines and we are not in these conspiracy theory issues and we have nothing against vaccination, we would just rather have an ethical vaccine option ‘.
“The simple solution to this is to allow everyone in Northern Ireland to have a vaccine and to make vaccines that are ethically sound.
“I’m not on the anti-vaccine train and I don’t want to do anything to dissuade people who have a different moral perspective on this.
“I’m just saying to our government, act together and make this available to people like me, I would even pay for it, so that those of us who have a moral problem can get vaccinated.”
Jim can’t seem to get vaccinated because Covid-19 vaccines are currently available; Oxford-AZ, Pfizer / BioNTec or Moderna are, in your opinion, and I have to say that the many-nuanced view of Christianity is unethical. Jim is not against vaccination, in fact he wants to get vaccinated, but current offerings, he claims, are clouded by the association with abortion and, since he is “very strongly against abortion,” he cannot use any of them. So a former health minister, in the worst public health crisis in a century, remains unvaccinated.
However, I would be happy to use the CureVac vaccine if the current Minister of Health just made it available. And as I have pointed out to Jim himself, for a brief moment, what our Minister of Health could, or should, know about the authorization of vaccines for human use even in times of pandemic. There are rules about such things, but we will get to that later.
First, the ethical question. This dates back to 1972, when cells were harvested from an aborted fetus to produce cell lines that are still widely used in vaccine development and other biomedical research. The Oxford AZ vaccine is based on an adenovirus and its production requires the use of cell lines originally derived from this fetal tissue. Cell lines make vaccine development very efficient, because they contain the genetic material necessary to produce the desired adenoviruses that cannot be obtained from animal cell lines. They are safe because the resulting adenovirus does not contain the genes that would replicate the virus and infect the cells of the vaccinated person. You get the immune response without the infection that is vaccination.
The Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna vaccines based on mRNA technology do not use fetal cell lines, although they appear to use these cell lines to test their vaccines. In summary, all available vaccines use cell lines or screen cell lines. CureVac, a German biotech company, which produces an mRNA vaccine similar to Pfizer and Moderna, appears to have avoided these ethical errors, but I’m not sure how.
Although it may not be very helpful to Jim and his Christian constituents, it is good to know that The Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith It gives Catholics a choice not to participate in this thorny ethical issue. It is comforting to know that, in the opinion of the descendants of the Inquisition, it is morally acceptable for Catholics to use these vaccines as they save lives and by using them the faithful in no way endorse or support abortion. Catholics, with no other choice, can accept the jab. Jim Wells is understandably wary of any Roman Catholic institution’s decision, so you can appreciate their desire to have the CureVac vaccine available in Northern Ireland. So why isn’t it here?
In February 2021, the UK agreed to an order for 50 million doses for the CureVac vaccine. However, the vaccine has not yet been approved for use by the MHRA, which regulates vaccines in the UK; Northern Ireland cannot authorize the vaccine as it is a reserved matter, and there are very good reasons for this. CureVac does not work as well and is 47% effective against infection. The company just published phase 111 clinical trials and the company’s disappointment is reflected in its stock price drop. At the beginning of June, its shares were selling for 116 US dollars, today they are worth 52 dollars.
But aside from the small fact that CureVac isn’t particularly good at preventing people from getting Covid-19, there are other unknowns. We do not know if it works in older people, if it is effective against emerging viral variants, or if there are specific safety concerns. More work needs to be done and rushing would be, well, unethical.
Jim has strong opinions on the ethics of this issue, but there are other ethical issues at stake. It could also be unethical to use a vaccine that is potentially inferior to existing licensed vaccines, and if this is so, it could possibly result in loss of life. There is also the question of whether it is ethical to remain unvaccinated, which could put other people’s lives at risk.
Editor’s Note: Before you comment, please take a moment. to research this topic for yourself. Also remember the rule to play the ball, not the man.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.