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Lung tissue from aborted fetus not used in AstraZeneca vaccine development

November 18, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Researchers used lung tissue from an aborted male fetus in the creation of COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. AstraZeneca did not use MRC-5 cells, which were cells first obtained from the lungs of a 14-week male fetus in the 1960s, in its production process for the COVID-19 vaccine.

THE FACTS: As news continues to break around the results of the COVID-19 vaccines, false claims about the vaccines are circulating online.

Among them, a video with hundreds of thousands of views about the vaccine developed through a partnership between the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

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In the video, an unidentified woman shows the packaging from a box of AstraZeneca and Oxford’s COVID-19 vaccine, which was formerly known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 and is now known as AZD1222.

The video zooms into the portion of the packaging that says ChAdOx1-S. The screen then changes to a research website showing a preprint of a University of Bristol study.

The woman focuses on the part of the study that says: “We used direct RNA sequencing to analyse transcript expression from the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 genome in human MRC-5 and A549 cell lines that are non-permissive for vector replication alongside the replication permissive cell line, HEK293.” She then explains that MRC-5 cell lines were originally developed from an aborted male fetus.

“Is everybody OK with having that injected into themselves or their children?” the woman asks.

Earlier in the video, the woman urged people to share the video with “anybody else that doesn’t want aborted fetal tissue fragments put into them.”

But the vaccine does not contain MRC-5 cells nor was it created with them. Researchers at the University of Bristol, who were independent from the vaccine’s development, injected the COVID-19 vaccine into MRC-5 cell lines as part of their own study.

“Our work is nothing to do with vaccine production, it’s about checking that the virus is behaving as we expect,” David Matthews, a virology researcher at University of Bristol who co-authored the study, said in an email.

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A spokesperson for AstraZeneca confirmed to the AP that the company does not use MRC-5 cells in the development of its vaccine.

MRC-5 cells are what is known as an immortalized cell line, which can reproduce indefinitely. Such cell lines are used in vaccine production to grow viruses in order to keep them from replicating.

Researchers first began using standardized fetal cell lines in the 1960s. Previously, researchers had used monkey kidney cells. But when those cells were found to have been contaminated with a monkey virus, researchers made the move to human cells because they were more sterile and better at growing human viruses, said Dr. Paul Offit, a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia immunization expert who sits on the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee. Standardized cell lines including WI-38 and MRC-5 both originated from fetuses that were electively aborted in the 1960s and 1970s.

Since then, those cell lines have been essential for vaccine research. Dr. Deepak Srivastava, president of Gladstone Institutes and former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said fetal cell lines were critical in developing hepatitis, measles and chickenpox vaccines.

“They are widely used in many aspects in biomedical science because they are so effective,” he said.

The AstraZeneca and Oxford vaccine relies on a harmless chimpanzee cold virus to carry the coronavirus spike protein into the body in order to create an immune response. AstraZeneca did not use MRC-5 cells, but it did use a different producer cell line to develop it: Human Embryonic Kidney 293 TREX cells. According to the University of Oxford development team, the original Human Embryonic Kidney 293 cells were taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus in 1973, but the cells used now are clones of the original cells and are not the original fetal tissue.

“What’s important for the public to know even if they are opposed to the use of fetal cells for therapies, these medicines that are being made and vaccines do not contain any aspect of the cells in them,” Srivastava said. “The cells are used as factories for production.”

The video making the false claim was shared widely on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“CONFIRMED- aborted Male fetus in Covid 19 vaccine,” one Facebook video with 160,000 views said.

The misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine has public health experts concerned about the implications it could have on the adoption of the vaccine in the United States. A May poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research revealed that 31 percent of Americans simply weren’t sure if they’d get vaccinated.

Nancy Kass, deputy director for public health at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, said a COVID-19 vaccine is the only thing that will get society back to normal.

“It will probably take having the majority of the population vaccinated to really get rid of COVID-19,” she said.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536