Should Christians Take the COVID-19 Vaccine?
An AG minister and healthcare professional offers guidance
For the last year, we have lived in a world of social isolation. Imagine standing in a sea of people pressing forward toward the doors of a convention center ready to open for evening worship. Imagine enjoying fellowship with a church group in a crowded restaurant after a Sunday service and laughing as you work your way through a buffet line. Imagine attending an aerobics class in your local gym.
Warmly greeting one another during a church service with a handshake or a hug, singing together in a choir, and seeing one another’s smiling faces without masks eventually will be possible once again. As an ordained minister and a professional in the healthcare industry, I understand that the price of regaining the world of human interaction we lost is vaccinating enough individuals to stop the spread of the coronavirus known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which is responsible for COVID-19 disease.
Why Is Vaccination Important?
SARS-CoV-2 is spread from person to person primarily by respiratory droplets exhaled by an infected person. These droplets vary in size from large droplets that fall out of the air within six feet of the infected person to aerosols that can remain in the air over time and greater distances. These aerosols are associated with singing, shouting, and breathing heavily during exercise and can increase viral transmission in poorly ventilated, enclosed spaces.
A vaccine reduces the likelihood of a person getting a disease. For example, if a vaccine has 95% efficacy results, then people who are vaccinated are 20 times less likely to get COVID-19 compared to people who are not vaccinated.
Furthermore, healthy people who are vaccinated reduce the likelihood of people unable to be vaccinated getting COVID-19 through herd immunity, or community immunity. Herd immunity occurs when enough people are immune to a disease through vaccination that the disease does not spread effectively in the population. Researchers estimate that herd immunity to COVID-19 will require 75–80% of the population to be vaccinated.
Thus, people who choose to take the COVID-19 vaccine not only protect themselves, but they also help the community stay healthy. Such a choice is a practical way to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
What Vaccines Are Available?
As of March 2021, three vaccines have been granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Two of these vaccines, the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, are made with messenger RNA (mRNA). In controlled clinical trials, the Moderna vaccine has 94% efficacy results, and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has 95% efficacy results. For perspective, the seasonal flu vaccine has 40% to 60% efficacy results.
The Moderna vaccine requires two doses 28 days apart and is recommended for people aged 18 years and older, while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two doses 21 days apart and is recommended for people aged 16 years and older.
Ultimately, the pandemic will end when enough healthy individuals choose to be vaccinated.
A third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) uses a different approach, based on stable DNA molecules, that only requires one dose and has less stringent refrigeration requirements for storage of the vaccine. In controlled studies, this viral vector vaccine had 66% efficacy results (72% efficacy results in the U.S.) and 85% efficacy preventing severe disease. These results were obtained after variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus started to circulate widely, so direct comparison of efficacy results between the mRNA vaccines and the viral vector vaccines may not be possible.
Another viral vector vaccine, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, is authorized for use in the United Kingdom, but not in the U.S.
Are the Vaccines Safe?
A virus contains a genetic blueprint in the form of either DNA or RNA wrapped in a coat of proteins. The important part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from the perspective of the immune system is the spike protein on the protein coat of the virus.
Traditional vaccines are made by weakening a virus for injection or extracting an important protein for injection. Polio and measles are two examples of diseases prevented by traditional vaccines. However, the process of making traditional vaccines takes time. About 30 years ago, researchers explored the possibilities of creating a vaccine from the mRNA that makes the critical protein needed for immunization for a particular disease. Not only would this approach be quick and simple, but the immune response appeared to be stronger, creating both antibodies against a virus and immune system killer cells.
This research paved the way for the several groups of scientists, including those at Pfizer working with a German company called BioNTech and the group at the Massachusetts-based company Moderna, to create the first working mRNA vaccines.
These vaccines are made with synthetic mRNA that instructs a person’s cells to make a portion of the spike protein found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. Since the vaccines do not contain the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the vaccines cannot cause a person to develop COVID-19 disease.
The Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine uses a different approach. This vaccine is a viral vector vaccine manufactured using a modified adenovirus type 26 (Ad26) that contains the genetic code (DNA) for the SARS-CoV-2 virus spike protein. The adenovirus, which typically causes respiratory infections, has been modified so it cannot cause infection. Since the only part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus produced upon vaccination is the spike protein, the vaccine cannot infect a person with COVID-19.
Common side effects for all the vaccines include pain and swelling at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle or joint aches, and fever or chills. Mild side effects often indicate that the body is building protection against the virus. In fact, younger adults with more robust immune systems report more side effects than older adults.
What Are the Ethical Concerns?
Christians who uphold the sanctity of human life express concern about using vaccines that may have used fetal cell lines originally created from an aborted fetus in either the testing or manufacture of the vaccine. The desire to avoid moral compromise is commendable, but we must guard against well-meaning concerns leading to faulty conclusions.
In initial laboratory safety testing of the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccines, researchers used a fetal cell line known as human embryonic kidney 293 (HEK-293) cells. This fetal cell line was originally generated in 1973 by researchers in the Netherlands from tissue from an aborted healthy female fetus. The abortion was not performed with the intent of harvesting tissue for research.
The Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine uses the fetal cell line PER.C6 to produce and manufacture the vaccine. The PER.C6 cell line was developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. Use of this cell line is required to produce a vaccine with the correct immunological characteristics.
Both fetal cell lines were obtained from tissue taken from a human fetus, but these cell lines no longer contain any of the original fetal cells, only descendent cells grown in a laboratory. These descendent cells were never a part of the fetus’ body, nor can they form a living organism. They do not constitute a potential human being, as they are only kidney cells or retinal cells. No new abortions are required to obtain new cell lines for future use.
So, is a person who takes a vaccine manufactured with cells descended from fetal tissue from an abortion many decades ago morally complicit with the original abortion?
The bioethical concept of “moral complicity” considers three factors: timing, proximity, and intent. Timing involves whether the decision to take a certain COVID-19 vaccine will encourage future abortions or is irrelevant to the historical abortion from decades ago.
Proximity distinguishes between the culpability of the original doctor who performed the abortion and a person who takes a COVID-19 vaccine that was produced from viruses grown using cells derived from embryonic tissue donated decades earlier.
Intent clarifies the purpose. The woman in 1973 or 1985 who chose to have an abortion might have intended to end her pregnancy, but the person choosing to take a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 intends to prevent disease in the community. The person choosing to take the vaccine has a clear separation from the intent of the original abortion.
Who Should Take the Vaccine?
An important ethical consideration is the equitable distribution and access to COVID-19 vaccines. Of course, frontline workers in health and social care settings and first responders have priority.
Vaccinated caregivers will be better equipped to help others. Certain individuals, such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, need the protection the vaccine offers. Teachers and others who come into contact with many people in the course of their jobs also are a priority for vaccination.
At the appropriate time, everyone who can safely do so should take the vaccine. Ultimately, the pandemic will end when enough healthy individuals choose to be vaccinated against COVID-19.