Covid-19: the question of vaccines

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(from the Alphonsian Academy Blog)

Covid-19, caused by the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, has spread around the world like an unstoppable flood wave. There are still no effective therapies. A lot of effort has been put into the development of a vaccine. For this, the most important laboratories and the most powerful multinational drug companies have entered the field.

In addition to the undoubted humanitarian desire to stem the pandemic, we cannot overlook the enormous economic return that will come to those who will be able to produce a safe and effective vaccine. In the United States, the biotech company Moderna has already received from the government the impressive figure of 2.5 billion dollars but has guaranteed in return the provision of 100 million doses, of which 15 million before the end of the year. Pfizer’s surge on the stock exchange in the aftermath of the announcement that it had completed testing of its vaccine gives an idea of the circle of interests behind this research. The distribution of the vaccine in poor countries has already activated international cooperation and, on the part of vaccine producers, the price battle has already begun.

The need to arrive quickly at a vaccine may lead to be less rigorous in respecting the rules and procedures that govern experimentation. If the usual procedure is followed, the development of new antiviral vaccines requires at least a decade. Still, to have Sars-CoV2 vaccines in a year, the phases of experimentation on human subjects and, above all, the last phase, the so-called phase III, have been accelerated. The prestigious British Medical Journal has repeatedly raised serious objections to the data published so far that would not answer all questions about the quality and effectiveness of the protection offered by vaccines (link).

A further problematic aspect is the controversial ethicality of some vaccines. Vaccination is done by introducing into the body the killed or attenuated pathogens or parts of them, and for this, you need large quantities of the bacterium or virus. To multiply the viruses, culture media made up of cells of the animal or human origin must be used. Some viruses of common infectious diseases, such as rubella, measles and hepatitis A, grow only or grow best on human cells, and the human cell media suitable for the production of these viruses are formed from cell lines of fetal origin from abortions procured in the second half of the last century. The use of vaccines produced using these cell lines has always posed conscience problems to those who do not want to have anything to do, even indirectly, with an abortion.

The issue was addressed in 2005 in a statement of the Academy for Life whose conclusions were taken up in 2008 in Dignitas Personae n. 35. Obviously, the use of such a vaccine does not make direct cooperation to abortion, but rather indirect cooperation and remote from abortion that, for serious reasons, must be considered lawful. There remains the unpleasant sensation of benefiting from a seriously immoral act. Still, the serious risk of falling ill and the social responsibility justify the use of such a vaccine, provided that no valid alternatives are available and without prejudice to the duty to express one’s disagreement as much as possible and to ask that health systems make other types of vaccine available. To similar conclusions came a 2017 Note from the Academy for Life in which the issue of cooperation was, however, much downplayed. In reference to the anti-Covid vaccines, this position was confirmed by a Note of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith published on December 21, 2020.

Among the approximately 120 vaccines under study for Covid-19, many involve the use of cell lines derived from procured abortions and among these vaccines is the vaccine developed by the University of Oxford that is about to be put into use. The possibility of a vaccination campaign with this vaccine has aroused reactions from the Pro-Life movement and some bishops in the United States, Canada and Australia (link). The issue has become delicate because at the same time new vaccines that do not require passage on cellular media of fetal origin, such as that of Pfizer, have also arrived in the home stretch. This is a vaccine that introduces into the body, through lipid nanoparticles, the messenger RNA necessary for the virus to produce its characteristic spikes. After vaccination, the viral messenger RNA is read by our cells that begin to produce the proteins of the spikes, and so our immune system is sensitized to them.

Which vaccine is the safest and most effective cannot be established on ethical grounds. A vaccine that does not present moral problems in its production can be preferred to another only under the same clinical conditions. Moreover, let’s keep in mind that even if different types of vaccines are available on the market, in a certain nation, only one type of vaccine can be available, so it would be morally impossible to use the so-called ethical vaccines.

Regarding the moral obligation of vaccination, some considerations must be made. Obviously, there is no obligation to be vaccinated against any disease, but, referring to the pandemic situation, there is – in our opinion – a moral duty that immediately derives from the duty to provide for one’s own health and the health of others. Since a part of the population, for various reasons such as forms of immunodepression or severe allergy to the vaccine itself, cannot be vaccinated, those who can receive the vaccine must do so at least to consider those who cannot. The recent Note of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith did not declare vaccination obligatory even in a pandemic situation, but – using the terminology of the documents of medical societies – “recommends” it. We do not enter into the medical and cultural controversy of those opposed to vaccines, the so-called No-Vax, and those who even deny that there is a pandemic, the Deniers. Still, we want to raise the issue of those who, for reasons of conscience, oppose the use of vaccines that involve in certain stages the use of lines derived from fetal cells. The recent Note clearly stated that “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used with a clear conscience” and, therefore, there would be no reason to disobey a civil law requiring vaccination or to request an exemption for reasons of conscience from any vaccination requirement. In response to the requests of some pastors and faithful, the Note of the Congregation admits an abstention from vaccination for reasons of conscience, but recalls, precisely for serious reasons of charity towards one’s neighbour, the duty to “strive to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behaviour, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In practice, those who refuse to vaccinate should, as long as the pandemic risk persists, wear masks, avoid gatherings, including liturgical assemblies, keep their social distance, isolate themselves if suspicious symptoms appear. Imagining the difficulty of implementing these behaviours, in our opinion, in principle no one who can vaccinate should refrain from doing so, whether or not imposed by state law, because one can nobly risk one’s own health for ideal reasons. Still, one cannot put at risk others’ health and, above all, of the most vulnerable.

Fr. Maurizio P. Faggioni, O.F.M.

(the original article is in Italian)

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