Fact Check

Does Pfizer's COVID-19 Vaccine Contain Aborted Fetal Cells?

An October 2021 viral video rehashed an old controversy.

Published Oct. 8, 2021

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The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine contains cells from an aborted fetus.

The COVID-19 vaccine does not contain fetal cells. A fetal cell line, or copies of a primary cell dating back to an abortion or miscarriage in 1973, was used in testing the efficacy of the vaccine.

In October 2021, a number of social media users started spreading the claim that Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine contained aborted fetal cells. 

There are no aborted fetal cells in Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. 

This claim spawns from a video that was released by Project Veritas, a conservative activist group that has previously been found to use deceptive practices and misleading edits in their videos, on October 6, 2021, that supposedly showed "leaked" emails from Pfizer employees about how they wanted to downplay the role fetal cells played in the development of the vaccine. One of the most popular screenshots reportedly showed an email in which Pfizer employees said that they "tried really hard" not to share information about fetal cells being used during the testing of the COVID-19 vaccine:

Memes claim Pfizer covid vaccine contains aborted fetal cells

This email does not say that aborted fetal cells are in the vaccine. It says that a fetal cell line, which is basically a line of cloned cell copies, was used during testing.

While Pfizer may have not wanted to advertise this information, this also wasn't much of a secret. The fact that fetal cell lines were being used to test COVID-19 vaccines has been public since at least July 2020, months before these vaccines were first administered. We wrote about a similar rumor regarding the COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson in March 2021

What Are Fetal Cell Lines?

The Pfizer vaccine does not contain aborted fetal cells, but a fetal cell line was used during testing. So what exactly does this mean? How close is the link from vaccine to abortion? In this case, about 50 years. 

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine used the HEK293T cell line during the testing phrase. This cell line ( a cell line is basically a series of cloned cell copies from original cell) can be traced back to 1973, about 48-years ago, when a kidney cell was isolated from a terminated fetus (it's unclear if this was from an abortion or a miscarriage).

James Lawler, the Associate Professor of the Department of Internal Medicine at the Nebraska Medical Center, said:

The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any aborted fetal cells. However, fetal cell lines – cells grown in a laboratory based on aborted fetal cells collected generations ago – were used in testing during research and development of the mRNA vaccines, and during production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ... 

Fetal cell lines are cells that grow in a laboratory. They descend from cells taken from abortions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Those individual cells from the 1970s and 1980s have since multiplied into many new cells over the past four or five decades, creating the fetal cell lines I mentioned above. Current fetal cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue. They do not contain any tissue from a fetus...

When it comes to the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, fetal cell line HEK 293 was used during the research and development phase. All HEK 293 cells are descended from tissue taken from a 1973 abortion that took place in the Netherlands. Using fetal cell lines to test the effectiveness and safety of medications is common practice, because they provide a consistent and well-documented standard.

What Does the Pope Have to Say About This?

While many people have objected to taking a vaccine that was tested with fetal cell lines, saying that it is against their religion, the Vatican put out a statement in December 2020 saying that it was morally acceptable for people to take the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Vatican clarified that while they were not endorsing the use of fetal cell lines, they believed that it was "morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process" when alternatives were not available. 

"When ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available — e.g. in countries where vaccines without ethical problems are not made available to physicians and patients or where their distribution is more difficult due to special storage and transport conditions or when various types of vaccines are distributed in the same country but health authorities do not allow citizens to choose the vaccine with which to be inoculated — it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process."

Fetal Cell Lines Are Commonly Used in Cell Biology Research

The COVID-19 vaccines were hardly the first drug to be tested on fetal cell lines. In fact, most modern medicine has some connection to fetal cell lines.

Lawler said: "The bottom line is almost all the medical products we use have in some way been touched by research that's been done on fetal cell lines."

It's also worth noting that the same fetal cell line (HEK293) that was used to test Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine was also used to test Regeneron's monoclonal antibody treatment, REGEN-COV, the drug that former United States President Donald Trump took after contracting COVID-19. 

A spokesperson for Regeneron told Newsweek:

"HEK293T is a 40+ year old 'immortalized' cell line that was originally derived from embryonic kidney cells in the 1970s.

"It's commercially available and very commonly used by research labs and have been involved in the development of important vaccines and therapeutics for conditions such as hemophilias A/B & Type 2 diabetes."

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Astor, Maggie. "Project Veritas Video Was a 'Coordinated Disinformation Campaign,' Researchers Say." The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/29/us/politics/project-veritas-ilhan-omar.html.

Cell Lines - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/cell-lines#:~:text=Cell%20lines%20are%20cultures%20of,experiments%20within%20a%20few%20days. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.

"How Making a COVID-19 Vaccine Confronts Thorny Ethical Issues." Science News, 7 July 2020, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/coronavirus-covid19-vaccine-ethical-issues.

Jarvis, Jacob. "Fact Check: Was Regeneron's COVID-19 Treatment Tested on Cells Derived from Fetal Tissue?" Newsweek, 3 Sept. 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/fact-check-regeneron-derived-fetal-tissue-1625354.

"Project Veritas: How Fake News Prize Went to Rightwing Group Beloved by Trump." The Guardian, 29 Nov. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/nov/29/project-veritas-how-fake-news-prize-went-to-rightwing-group-beloved-by-trump.

Service, Catholic News. "Vatican: Without Alternatives, Current COVID-19 Vaccines Are Morally Acceptable." Catholic News Service, 21 Dec. 2020, https://www.catholicnews.com/vatican-without-alternatives-current-covid-19-vaccines-are-morally-acceptable/.

"The COVID Vaccine Is Not the Only Modern Medicine to Be Made with Fetal Stem Cell Research." KUSA.Com, 7 Sept. 2021, https://www.9news.com/article/news/local/next/covid-vaccine-not-only-modern-medicine-fetal-stem-cell-research/73-e7a3f75e-ca71-4b13-bef2-4f9d3a98fa84.

Vogel, Annette B., et al. A Prefusion SARS-CoV-2 Spike RNA Vaccine Is Highly Immunogenic and Prevents Lung Infection in Non-Human Primates. 8 Sept. 2020, p. 2020.09.08.280818. bioRxiv, https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.09.08.280818v1.

You Asked, We Answered: Do the COVID-19 Vaccines Contain Aborted Fetal Cells? https://www.nebraskamed.com/COVID/you-asked-we-answered-do-the-covid-19-vaccines-contain-aborted-fetal-cells. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.

Dan Evon is a former writer for Snopes.

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