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Vaccine fact & fiction: How to tell the difference

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Religious and health care officials are urging the public to seek accurate information on the vaccines that immunize against SARS-CoV-2, the strain of coronavirus which has killed more than 700,000 people nationwide and more than 4,000 here in Oregon.

Misinformation is out there, particularly on social media, which is why Samaritan infectious disease expert Dr. Adam Brady is shedding light on some of the biggest misconceptions about the vaccines offered by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

“I encourage people to find people they trust and to avoid social media or other things that might not provide the best information,” Brady said. “Talk to your doctor, basically.”

Fetal cells

One of the more controversial aspects of the vaccines’ development is the use of aborted fetal cell tissue lines to test and research the vaccine’s effectiveness.

It is true that these and many other vaccines were developed using fetal tissue from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s. Using those cells helps scientists see how the virus and the vaccines react to actual human tissue — rather than using animal cells, which may not replicate the same response.  

The reason these particular cells are so widely used in biomedical research is that they can be easily reproduced in a lab. Fetal cell lines, unlike other kinds of cells, preserve better and duplicate more times beyond what’s called the typical Hayflick limit — the number of times a cell can be divided before it dies.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines did not use these cells in the manufacturing of their vaccines, although they were used in the testing process to see how their mRNA technology functioned, and to see how the living cells developed responses to this strain of coronavirus.

Other vaccines that have used these same types of cell lines include rubella, rabies and Hepatitis A.

In fact, there are all kinds of modern medicines that utilize these same cell lines during production or research, such as Tylenol, Benadryl, Sudafed, Prilosec and Zoloft.

The vaccines themselves do not contain fetal cells or stem cells, and none of the vaccines solicited or used new fetal tissue. They all used fetal tissues from decades-old abortions.

Even still, these details have made some religious groups hesitant to get vaccinated.

The Charlotte Lozier Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based pro-life group that studies health care issues which pertain to women’s health and families, released a study in May 2020 which came to the conclusion that vaccines that use fetal tissue lines for any stage of production are unethical.

“The use of cells from electively aborted fetuses for vaccine production makes these five COVID-19 vaccine programs unethical, because they exploit the innocent human beings who were aborted,” the study states. “While some may see no ethical problem, for many a straight line can be drawn from the ending of a human life in an abortion to a vaccine or drug created using cells derived from the harvesting of the fetal tissue.”

An updated study by the institute clarified its stance that vaccines offered by Pfizer and Modern are "ethically uncontroversial" because they did not utilize fetal tissue lines in the production of the vaccines.

Other faith-based organizations and religious leaders have urged the devout to get vaccinated, especially given a lack of alternatives to the three main coronavirus vaccines available in the United States.

The Vatican released a statement in December, essentially saying the lives the vaccines save make the compromise worth it.

“The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent — in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.”

Therefore, “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion.”

Religious exemptions

Beyond the quandary about fetal cells, some claim religious exemptions in resisting the vaccine, particularly in schools and workplaces where they have been mandated. It’s unknown just how big this trend is in the mid-Willamette Valley.

More than 10 local churches were contacted by Mid-Valley Media to comment about whether they’ve seen a large number of requests for notes of exemption, but only one returned calls.

Pastor Dan Clements of the Neighborhood Church in Albany said he’s only seen one request for a religious exemption throughout the pandemic, “which is low for us,” he said.

The church didn’t grant the request and has instead taken the stance that it will not weigh in on the scientific aspects of coronavirus protocols and vaccines.

“For us, we believe the decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate is a personal decision,” he said. “We don’t believe it’s our job as a church to interfere with that process.”

“We’ve been abiding by the directives of the Oregon Health Authority,” he added. “The Bible is clear that we’re called to be under authority, and we believe we should abide by that.”

Rushed production

Another big misconception is that the vaccines’ production was rushed. While it’s true that the typical timetable for testing and researching the vaccines was sped up because of the dire need for a way to combat the coronavirus, doctors say no steps were skipped, and the research was still vigorous.

The way Brady explained it was that while the normal process would wait for each step to be completed before the next one can begin, the emergency authorization of vaccine research by the Food and Drug Administration made it so that many of those steps could be done simultaneously, thereby speeding up the timetable for approval.

“I think everyone has a conception that the vaccine development started on Day 1 of the COVID pandemic. … But if you go back, parts of the mRNA vaccine — it’s sort of a 40-year body of research, starting with genetics,” Brady said. “While this was the first widely used application of this vaccine technology, scientists have been using this for decades already.”

Natural Immunity

Since vaccines first started being administered in the U.S. last winter, there have been many unknowns surrounding natural immunity, the amount of resistance to the coronavirus after having the disease.

It’s still unknown just how strong natural immunity is, or how long it lasts. But Brady said it is clear that natural immunity likely lasts for a shorter time than the immunity vaccines provide, and getting inoculated while having natural immunity provides even greater protection.

“Studies do show that if you’re infected and then get vaccinated … it grants an almost superhuman immunity from prior infection and vaccination,” he said. “It is likely effective against mutations (like the delta variant).”

Personal account

Dr. Brady also provided his own personal account of his decision to get vaccinated in December, when health care workers were among the first to be approved for vaccinations.

He acknowledges he had his own questions, but looking into the vaccines and the processes by which they were produced helped him become confident in their efficacy.

“I got vaccinated with Pfizer on Dec. 18,” he said. ”At that time I was not skeptical, but from a scientific standpoint wanted to make sure. Now I have even a lot more confidence. … if you’re still hesitant now, the body of evidence has just grown and grown and grown.” 

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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