Keeping up with the social media conspiracy theories about vaccines can be an exhausting task. Often, the crew here at NDsForVaccines embody the old Jonathan Swift quote that “falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” But the latest story making the rounds got my attention, because it has roots in the truth.
This bizarre story, posted to social media this week, made the accusation that vaccine researchers are involved in the process of abortions, choosing particularly grisly methods to harvest the important fetal tissues for vaccine production. This genre of article has been getting traction, and I’ve personally already heard more than one parent express concern about the presence of aborted fetal tissue in vaccinations. I am choosing not to link these articles here, because I do not want to amplify their slanderous message.
Like many internet conspiracies, this one starts with a true story, and builds a framework of lies around it. It is true that many vaccines are produced using cells in culture that were originally sourced from an abortion procedure. The most important of these cell lines, known as WI-38, was developed in 1962 from an elective abortion that occurred in Sweden. Though they had nothing to do with the termination procedure, researchers in Philadelphia obtained samples of lung tissue from this fetus, and they were able to grow them in culture continuously and reliably to this day.
The WI-38 cell lines are believed to be sustainable for vaccine production for at least the next several decades. The stories making the rounds about abortions planned or coerced by vaccine researchers have no basis, whatsoever. Similarly, charges that medical researchers are using barbaric techniques like “live abortion” (whatever that means) are not true. No new tissue lines have been added to vaccine manufacture production since the 1960s.
Side note: There is an important and difficult ethical question about how people whose tissues were the source of important cell lines used in research should or should not be compensated for their contribution to science. The book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks speaks to that controversy, as well as an article in Slate from 2017. Like many of the methods of production in the vaccine industry, the developer of this WI-38 cell line has donated it to science and receives no royalties from its use.
Cell lines are critically important for the reproduction of viruses, which otherwise would not live and reproduce on their own. Fetal cell lines are particularly useful in this process because their immaturity allows for greater numbers of divisions with less likelihood of genetic changes with each generation. The fact that the same two cell lines have been used continuously in production since the 1960s speaks to how innovative and effective that process has been.
Side note number 2: Often, anti-vaccine activists sometimes speculate or claim that vaccines could or do cause cancer without any proof that this is true. Note that over five decades of vaccine production have not caused a malignant transformation of these WI-38 cell lines. This should put this cancer risk claim to rest, or at least be a potent argument against it.
The US vaccines that use these fetal cell lines in development and production are rubella (which is the R in the MMR), varicella, shingles (which is also the varicella virus), rabies, and hepatitis A. One version of the polio virus was also developed in fetal cell lines, but it is not currently used in the United States.
The vaccines produced using the WI-38 line have prevented an estimated 500,000 deaths and nearly 200 million illnesses in the United States alone. These vaccines have a strong track record for safety and efficacy, and are not linked to any health concerns that would be circumvented by using alternate methods of tissue culture. Changing the method of manufacture of these vaccines would necessitate new rounds of clinical trials and would take at least a decade to implement.
On some of the darker corners of the internet, this production method is distorted to say that vaccines contain aborted baby tissue. This is simply untrue. While the viruses are grown in a cell medium that was derived from an elective termination, there are no proteins from these cells included in the production methodology.
My suspicion is that the increase in interest and chatter related to the fetal tissue role in vaccine production is due to the recent limitations in several states on the use of personal belief waivers that allow unvaccinated children into public schools. Only 15 states currently allow philosophical waivers, but 45 allow religious waivers. Though no major religion currently objects to United States vaccination policy as a matter of doctrine, use of these waivers has been increasingly rapidly in the past decade.
Interestingly, in 2003, the Catholic Church discussed whether it was moral to use vaccinations produced via methods that involve tissue obtained via abortion. The Catholic Church, after all, considers abortion to be a sinful act. Their Pontifical Academy of Life, headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ruled that while a troubling history, the moral burden of fighting pharmaceutical industry practices should not fall on children and pregnant women.
In today’s heated anti-vaccine climate, these words seem prescient. Rubella has been abolished from the America’s for over a decade. Let’s keep it that way.
- The woman whose aborted fetus helped create the rubella vaccine.
- The Role of the WI-38 Cell Strain in Saving Lives and Reducing Morbidity
- What the world’s religions teach, applied to vaccines and immune globulins.
- Religious Vaccine Exemptions in Kindergartners: 2011–2018 | American Academy
- Vatican Statement on Vaccines Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses
Matthew Brignall, ND is a contributor to NDsforvaccines.com. He has a private practice in Tacoma, WA, and works part-time for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department investigating COVID-19 outbreaks in congregate care settings. He is also a contributing member of the Pierce County Immunization Coalition. His hobbies include record collecting, jazz guitar, and exposing medical fraud. His interest in vaccination policy is at least in part to protect his daughter, an adult with developmental disability.