In the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, ethical concerns abound

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HeLa cells. Credit: HBO

How do we ethically test it in people? Can people be forced to get the vaccine if they don’t want it? Who should get it first?

Tackling those questions demands that a [COVID-19] vaccine exist. But a slew of other ethical questions arise long before anything is loaded into a syringe. In particular, some Catholic leaders in the United States and Canada are concerned about COVID-19 vaccine candidates made using cells derived from human fetuses aborted electively in the 1970s and 1980s. The group wrote a letter to the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April, expressing concern that several vaccines involving these cell lines were selected for Operation Warp Speed — a multibillion-dollar U.S. government partnership aimed at delivering a COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021.

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The group urged the FDA to instead provide incentives for COVID-19 vaccines that do not use fetal cell lines. But, as virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University pointed out on Twitter, those other vaccines are being developed with scientific input from research using HeLA cells — which come with their own thorny ethical issues of consent.

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[Bioethicist Yolonda Wilson] notes that it’s an opportunity to help researchers think more about the history and context of their work. “It’s important not to act as though the science that happens is divorced from the communities in which it happens.”

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