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Paul Vallely: Ethical qualms carry real-world risks

04 September 2020

The Australian archbishops risk stoking up anti-vax feeling, says Paul Vallely


THREE archbishops in Australia have caused a flurry by declaring the most advanced of the poten­­tial vaccines against Covid-19 to be “ethically tainted”. They have written to their Prime Min­ister, Scott Morrison, asking him to find an alternative to the Oxford University vaccine, after the Australian government announced that it had signed a deal with AstraZeneca to produce and distribute the vaccine in that country.

The Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies (News, 28 August), and his Greek Ortho­dox and Roman Catholic counterparts, the Most Revd Makarios Griniezakis and Dr Anthony Fisher, have declared that religious people may not want to accept the vaccine because the cells in which it was cultivated were produced by “the death of [a] baby girl”. “To use that tissue . . . for science is reprehensible,” Dr Davies said. “Once I know something is morally compromised, it is my job to speak out about it.”

The vaccine has been grown in a culture that had its origin in a cell taken from the kidney of a foetus aborted in Holland almost five decades ago. What makes the Archbishops’ position prob­lem­atic is that this HEK-293 cell line has been widely used in research since 1973, in labs around the world. It was used to develop vaccines against rubella, hepatitis A, and chickenpox — none of which has been objected to by the three Churches.

Dr Fisher acknowledges that “some will have no ethical problem” with the promising AstraZeneca vaccine. But he says that others “will draw a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion through the cultivation of the cell-line to the use for manufacturing this vaccine”.

All this has received a robust response from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. They quote the Vatican’s Pontifical Acad­emy for Life, which has declared that, whatever their original provenance, “all clinically recom­mended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience”, and that “the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.” Indeed, the Bishops go fur­ther, insisting that citizens have a moral obligation to be vaccinated to protect the vulnerable, people with immunodeficiency, and pregnant women and their unborn children. Dr Fisher accepts that, but insists that governments have a responsibility to offer an “ethically untainted alternative”. If that proves impossible, he concedes, it would not be unethical to use the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which is now in Phase III trials.

Such a nuanced distinction is, no doubt, per­fectly valid in the academic circles in which Dr Fisher did his doctorate in bioethics. But, in the real world, the danger is that the Archbishops’ words may encourage devout Christians to join the extremists of the anti-vax refusenik move­ment. The more who reject a vaccine, the greater the risk is that the herd immunity produced by that vaccine could be compromised.

The prelates also risk drawing attention away from more serious ethical issues. One of these is the danger that all the available stocks of a suc­cessful vaccine will be bought up by rich govern­ments — even as the Covid virus rips through the unprotected populations of the poor world. Pro­portionality is a key consideration in ethics, as a Dominican such as Dr Fisher should well know, and the Australian archbishops may have done a disservice to that with this intervention.

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