Australia has signed an agreement with UK-based drug company AstraZeneca and Oxford University to buy their Covid-19 vaccine if it proves viable.

Under the deal, every Australian will be able to get the vaccine for free.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is now in Phase 3 trials, is one of the most promising of the 160 Covid-19 vaccines being developed around the world.

“If this vaccine proves successful we will manufacture and supply vaccines straight away under our own steam and make it free for 25 million Australians,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “We are taking advice from Australia’s best medical and scientific expertise to ensure that the Government’s work to select, produce and purchase Covid-19 vaccines and treatments is based on the best available knowledge.”

Criticising the deal before the ink is dry on the paper may be a bit rash. But there are two flies in the ointment.

First, the Oxford vaccine has been developed using a cell line from the kidney of an aborted foetus.

This is not fake news, or an anti-vax conspiracy theory. It is a well-documented fact. According to Science magazine it uses “HEK-293, a kidney cell line widely used in research and industry that comes from a foetus aborted in about 1972”. HEK is an acronym for “human embryonic kidney”.

In 2001 Dr Alex van der Eb, a Dutch scientist who was involved in developing HEK-293, recalled as best he could the origin of the cell line in a meeting with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.

“So the kidney material, the fetal kidney material was as follows: the kidney of the foetus was, with an unknown family history, obtained in 1972 probably. The precise date is not known anymore. The foetus, as far as I can remember was completely normal. Nothing was wrong [with the foetus]. The reasons for the abortion were unknown to me. I probably knew it at that time, but it got lost, all this information.”

It seems, then, that the cells came from the induced abortion of a healthy child, not from a miscarriage.

Of course that happened nearly 50 years ago, so the link with the abortion is faint — but it is real and documented, not imaginary.

In any case, the effluxion of time does not necessarily make a cell line any less controversial. To illustrate this, consider the HeLa cell line.

It is the oldest and most commonly used in medical research — and also the most controversial. It was derived from cervical cancer cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African-American mother of five who died of cancer in 1951. The cells proved extremely valuable in developing a number of vaccines against viruses, including polio and the human papilloma virus. But they were used without her knowledge or consent.

A book about the legal and ethical controversy — and the exploitation of a poor black woman and her family, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, became an international best-seller. Oprah starred in a film version. The author, Rebecca Skloot, pointed out that “Tissue is so often dehumanised — it’s referred to in medical reports and documents, and no one ever seems to remember that for every single biological sample that’s used in any laboratory, anywhere, there’s a person.” 

Difficult moral questions do not evaporate as the years go by.

The second fly in the ointment is that Mr Morrison has declared that Australians will be forced to take the vaccine, if the government eventually buys it.

“I would expect it to be as mandatory as you can possibly make it,” he told Neil Mitchell, of 3AW in Melbourne, this morning.

“There are always exemptions for any vaccine on medical grounds but that should be the only basis. I mean we’re talking about a pandemic that has destroyed you know, the global economy and taken the lives of hundreds of thousands all around the world and over 450 Australians here. We need the most extensive and comprehensive response to this to get Australia back to normal.”

No doubt Mr Morrison was free-wheeling on morning radio and mandatory vaccinations are not yet the settled policy of his government. Yet he was the architect of “no jab, no pay” when he was Health Minister in 2015. This removed government entitlement from families who refused to vaccinate their children. He is a resolute anti-anti-vaxxer. “My view on this is pretty clear and not for turning,” he said today.

What about adults? Them, too, Morrison hinted. “I don’t think offering jelly beans is the way to do that as you do with kids but we’ll take those issues as they present and consider what steps are necessary at that time.”

But you don’t have to be an anti-vaxxer to demand that the Australian government provide an alternative for members of the public who feel morally queasy about using a vaccine which is ultimately derived from an abortion.

As Carolyn Moynihan wrote in MercatorNet earlier this month, morally speaking, not all Covid-19 vaccines are equal.

As she pointed out, the Vatican issued well-informed, coherent guidelines on this precise issue 25 years ago. A duty to avoid remote complicity in abortion “springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life.”

However, the Vatican acknowledged that complicity could be morally proportionate in some circumstances:

“Thus, … danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”

Presumably for similar reasons, health care workers and people living with the sick and elderly could also use an abortion-derived vaccine.

But forcing everyone to use it, even if they object on ethical grounds, is government overreach.

Other vaccines are on the way, as Mr Morrison knows. He should ensure that his government also buys one which is not linked to abortion.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet