Perhaps it’s me, but I just couldn’t see where Jim Wells was coming from in a recent Belfast Telegraph article on his views of Covid vaccines. Here’s Jim as reported in the Tele which might give some sense of why I was confused.
“It is not an anti-vaccine issue it is an ethical issue. I have had a large number of Christians who have said to me: ‘Look we are not opposed to vaccines and are not into these conspiracy theory issues and have nothing against vaccination, we just would prefer to have an ethical vaccine option’.
“The simple solution to this is to enable everyone in Northern Ireland to have a vaccine and to make the vaccines which are ethically sound.
“I’m not on the anti-vaccine bandwagon and I don’t want to do anything to deter people who have a different moral perspective on this.
“I’m just saying to our government, get your act together and make this available to people like myself, I’d even pay for it, to enable those of us who have a moral problem to be vaccinated.”
Jim it seems cannot get vaccinated because currently available Covid-19 vaccines; Oxford-AZ, Pfizer/BioNTec or Moderna are in his view, and I have to say the view of many shades of Christianity, unethical. Jim is not anti-vaccination, indeed he wants to get vaccinated but current offerings, he claims, are tarnished by association with abortion and since he is “very strongly anti-abortion” he cannot use any of them. So an ex-Health Minister, in the worst public health crisis for a century, remains unvaccinated.
He would, however, be happy to use the CureVac vaccine if the current Health Minister would just make it available. And as I have pointed out Jim himself, for a brief moment, was our Health Minister so he might, or should, know something about the licensing of vaccines for human use even in a time of pandemic. There are rules about such things but we’ll come to that later.
Firstly the ethical issue. This goes back to 1972 when cells from an aborted foetus were harvested to produce cell-lines that are still widely used today in vaccine development and other biomedical research. The Oxford AZ vaccine is based on an adenovirus and its production requires use of cell-lines originally derived from this foetal tissue. Cell-lines make vaccine development very efficient, because they contain the genetic material necessary to produce the desired adenoviruses which cannot be obtained through 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 person vaccinated. You get the immune response without the infection which is vaccination.
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines based on mRNA technology do not use foetal cell-lines although they do, it seems, use these cell-lines to test their vaccines. In short, all available vaccines either use cell-lines or do research on cell-lines. CureVac, a German biotechnology company, producing a mRNA vaccine similar to Pfizer and Moderna, seems to have avoided these ethical pitfalls but I’m not sure how.
Although it might not be very helpful for Jim and his Christian constituents, it is good to know that The Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith gives Catholics an opt-out on this thorny ethical matter. It is reassuring to know that in the view of the descendants of the Inquisition that it is morally acceptable for Catholics to use these vaccines as they save lives and, in using them, the faithful are in no way endorsing or supporting abortion. Catholics, with no other option, can take up the jab. Understandably Jim Wells might be cautious on the ruling of any Roman Catholic institution so you can appreciate his desire to have CureVac vaccine available in N. Ireland. So why is it not here?
In February 2021, the UK agreed a 50 million-dose order for the CureVac vaccine. However, the vaccine has not yet been approved for use by the MHRA which regulates vaccines in UK – N. Ireland cannot license the vaccine as this is a reserved matter – and there are very good reasons for this. CureVac does not work so well showing about 47% efficacy against getting infected. The company have just published Phase 111 Clinical Trials and the company’s disappointment is reflected in its share-price crash. In early June its shares were selling at $116 US today they are worth $52.
But apart from the small fact that CureVac is not particularly good at stopping people from getting Covid-19 there are other unknowns. We don’t 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 to rush it would be, well, unethical.
Jim has strong views on the ethics of this issue but there other ethical issues at play. It might also be unethical to use a vaccine that is potentially inferior to the existing licensed vaccines and if this is so would possibly result in a loss of life. There is also the question of whether it is ethical to remain unvaccinated potentially putting others’ lives at risk.
Editor note: Before commenting please take a moment to research this issue for yourself. Also remember the play the ball not the man rule.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.