ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The new Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine will provide a big boost to the effort to protect as many Americans as possible as soon as possible. But now there may be an obstacle. Some church leaders are raising concerns about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because cell lines derived from abortions were used in its development. Joining us now is NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Explain which church leaders are raising these concerns. And what are they saying?
GJELTEN: Well, not surprisingly, Ari, it's those that focus most on abortion, notably U.S. Catholic bishops, also some evangelicals. In both cases, we have statements that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally compromised because fetal cell lines were used in its development. They say that if people have a choice in vaccines, they should avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. If they don't have a choice, they could go ahead and get whatever vaccine is available. And of course, Ari, as you know, right now most people don't have that choice.
SHAPIRO: Explain what they mean when they say fetal cell lines were used in its development. Like, how were they used?
GJELTEN: Well, fetal cell lines have long been used in developing vaccines. Not to get too technical about it, but my understanding is that cells from human fetuses can be used kind of like little factories to develop viruses that then become a part of a vaccine. They can also be used during the testing process to determine the efficacy of a vaccine. In the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, that's the only way fetal cells were used.
But in the Johnson & Johnson case, fetal cells were used more directly. The cell line in that case came from a fetus that was aborted back in 1985 - not the fetal cells themselves, but a line that was reproduced from those cells. That's what gave rise to this concern.
SHAPIRO: But in spite of the concern, just to be clear, U.S. bishops are saying that if Johnson & Johnson is the only vaccine available to someone, they should not hesitate to take it.
GJELTEN: That's right. And this is important. The U.S. bishops put out a statement just yesterday quoting the Vatican as saying the following - when ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available, it is morally acceptable to receive vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses. In fact, Francis Collins, who is director of the National Institutes of Health and himself a devout Christian, quoted this church position when he was interviewed on this subject back in December. This is what he said.
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FRANCIS COLLINS: I think the Catholic Church's position, which I thought was pretty thoughtful, was believers who are pro-life should look at this issue. But if you have a life-saving intervention, and there's no other alternative, this is acceptable.
GJELTEN: And you know, Ari, given how much misinformation there is out there about vaccines right now, maybe it's that part of the church statement that is actually the most important part.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. Is there any sense of how much of an impact, if any, this is likely to have on the vaccination effort?
GJELTEN: Well, one Catholic hospital here in the D.C. area, Holy Cross in suburban Maryland, has just gotten 500 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. I spoke today to the Reverend Kirtley Yearwood. He's the chief mission officer there at Holy Cross. He told me the hospital, even though it's a Catholic institution, won't hesitate to use the vaccine, regardless of the fetal cell line issue.
KIRTLEY YEARWOOD: Absolutely. It's a safe vaccine. It has a wonderful record as far as being able to prevent serious illness and hospitalization. So this is very remote. Cell lines are not a primary concern when you have the greater issue of saving lives.
GJELTEN: Of course, Ari, we'll just have to see whether other Catholic institutions take that same position when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine becomes more available.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Tom Gjelten, thanks a lot.
GJELTEN: You bet.
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