Statement on mRNA Vaccines

Doctor giving Covid vaccine to senior woman

When imperfect people leverage imperfect resources, we should not expect them ever to arrive at a perfect solution. We’ve certainly seen this in the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has even made it controversial to wear a mask in some places. But my interest today is to discuss what is perhaps the most dangerous health crisis of our time — not politics.

As of this writing, COVID-19 has claimed over one quarter million lives in the United States. Now, as we near the potential for vaccination, I wanted to write specifically on my views on the mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna Therapeutics and Pfizer.

The alphabet soup (mRNA) means: Messenger Ribonucleic Acid. (Please bear with me for a moment as I review some scientific background.) For distinction purposes, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the foundational hereditary material of life. It presents itself in a double helix pattern that pairs four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). In DNA, adenine and thymine pair up (AT or TA), as do guanine and cytosine (GC or CG).

RNA essentially is the expression vehicle for DNA that initiates the process of producing protein. It unravels the double helix and peels away a single strand in which the thymine is replaced with uracil. RNA generally comes in three forms: mRNA (Messenger Ribonucleic Acid), tRNA (Transfer Ribonucleic Acid), and rRNA (Ribosomal Ribonucleic Acid). The scientific distinction between them is explained as such:

mRNA carries genetic information from the nucleus to ribosomes for the synthesis of proteins; while tRNA carries specific amino acids to the ribosomes to assist the protein biosynthesis, and on the other hand, rRNA provides the structural framework for the formation of ribosomes.[1]

To put that all into English, ribosomes are sometimes described as the “protein synthesis machinery.” Without the synthesis of protein, the result is death.

A virus, like the SARS-COV-2 that results in COVID-19 disease, is not self-replicating. It is not a bacterial infection. Bacterial infections are typically treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics do not work against viruses. For a virus to replicate, it requires a host cell which “accepts” the virus. The virus then uses the “machinery” of the host cell to grow and spread to other cells. A virus tends to spread rapidly and undergo subtle changes because of its rapid growth, which is why last year’s vaccine against the flu virus may not work this year.

Typical vaccines involve injecting a deactivated strain of a specific virus into the body, triggering an immune response intended to protect a person should he or she encounter that virus. I like to refer to this as “tricking” the body into a protective mode.

Research into the use of mRNA is a somewhat novel, and dare I say, overdue approach to protecting the body. Because of the critical role mRNA plays in protein synthesis, and because the synthesis process involves degrading mRNA before it has a direct effect on a person’s genome, it theoretically presents an excellent opportunity to thwart the entrance of viruses into otherwise welcoming cells.

We are understandably concerned over any manipulation of the human genome, especially with humanity’s past (and present???) experiences involving eugenics and genocide. Yet, we recognize suffering and death as a result of sin in the world and are instructed to use resources to help people combat their sickness. The manipulation of mRNA holds the wonderful potential to help others. Yet, it should rightly concern us since it can be used for good and for evil. Playing with mRNA opens a new door of learning which may increase the temptation to abuse the knowledge.

As I understand it, mRNA-based vaccines make a lot of sense, especially against the rapidly changing (and dangerous) nature of viruses. With each step into this area, however, should come a higher sense of vigilance.

The American biotech company, Moderna Therapeutics, made a media splash already on February 1, 2017, when SCIENCE published an article about the company’s research into the use of mRNA to fight viruses. While other pharmaceuticals look at more traditional avenues for vaccination against viruses, I am intrigued by Pfizer’s and Moderna’s research into tapping into the natural mechanisms of mRNA.

This is hardly our first dance into messing with human DNA. We introduce “third party DNA” with every blood transfusion and organ transplantation. Gene therapy also holds out great promise. Yet, anytime we tinker with DNA we should be concerned.

Because both Pfizer and Moderna continue to work with RNA and not DNA, the distinction is important. Research from 1990 already showed that work with mRNA does not carry with it a genetic consequence to our progeny.

Personally, I have always felt we are still too early in the game to know for certain the genetic consequences of any introduction of DNA other than from our biological parents, but I could be wrong in that regard. Nevertheless, when choices can be made, I have encouraged people to hold off on organ transplants, blood transfusions, and other related exchanges of body material containing its own DNA until a person passes child-bearing age. Yet, it is more of a cautionary suggestion than an effort to scare or coerce people. Just be aware.

Conversely, I must also admit a greater comfortableness with an effective mRNA vaccine than with traditional forms of immunization which introduce sufficient benign virus material to create an immune response. The mRNA approach is based on logical science. As I mentioned above, traditional vaccine development involves essentially “tricking” the body into believing a virus is present and thus produces antibodies ready to fight it. The mRNA approach is more like “reprogramming” the body’s system to guard against virus intrusion.

A frustrating concern within the vaccine development arena is the role of fetal cells extracted from aborted children. Many vaccines developed over the years have used aborted fetal cells in their development. That is not the case with mRNA-developed vaccines. There are no fetal cells involved in the creation of the mRNA vaccines.

However, during laboratory testing, fetal cell cultures are still being used. Both Moderna and Pfizer have used the HEK-293 culture for testing, which is developed from human embryonic kidney cells taken from a presumably healthy child either spontaneously or purposefully aborted around 1972.[2]

Christian Life Resources has undertaken a study of the broader topic of vaccine development and is distilling that information for the purposes of drafting an informational paper sometime in 2021. If the original fetal tissue was unethically obtained (i.e., via the intentional termination of an unborn child’s life), that is certainly disturbing, and even if it was used only in the test phase of vaccine development it is unfortunate. Any use of aborted fetal tissue will likely pose a conscience problem for some.

In a commentary on the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, Dr. Joseph Meaney, Ph.D., president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, stated,

Any time one is using cell lines that were derived from an abortion the scientists are doing something they shouldn’t be doing. And so, there is this very, very widespread practice to use like the HEK-293 cells – the human embryonic kidney cells – to do the testing phase. So not in the production or the development of the vaccine but just in the testing, and that is still problematic, but it is one step removed from actually producing the vaccines in these abortion drive cell lines.[3]

Dr. Meaney’s comments reflect observations made by the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D., Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, in reaction to medical care President Trump received for his COVID-19 infection:

Even if the cocktail of antibodies received by the president had been manufactured, not in hamster cells, but in cells derived from an abortion that happened decades earlier, it still would be ethically permissible for the president to receive that drug. He would not commit a sin by receiving the medical treatment; the sin was rather committed by those who originally raided the corpse of the aborted child or established corporate policies to use abortion-derived cells, rather than alternatives. Individual end users have no direct causal connection to those wrongful decisions made previously by others.

The Catholic Church, for her part, has been clear that end users may receive such drugs when there is a proportionately serious reason for doing so, given that they had no involvement in any of the decisions that led to the use of the cells.

It remains the case, nevertheless, that end-users still have a duty to protest the disturbing fact that aborted materials are being used in many sectors of biomedical research, and to push vigorously for the development of alternatives…

None of us should have to take drugs that have any connection, even a very remote one, to abortion; but because our society made the dire mistake of legalizing fetal homicide in 1973, we must now contend with the infiltration of abortion-derived materials into numerous areas of biomedical research and development. The COVID-19 pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to confront these problems, and to take decisive steps toward real change.[4]

In its May 6, 2020, report, “An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs,” the leadership of the Charlotte Lozier Institute presented a table classifying both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine efforts against SARS-2 as “Ethically Uncontroversial.”[5]

On “The Public Discourse” website of the Witherspoon Institute, Jeffrey Barrows and Jonathon Imbody, who are affiliated with The Christian Medical and Dental Association, wrote specifically about Pfizer’s work with mRNA:

Unlike the aforementioned COVID-19 vaccine candidates that rely on abortion-derived cells for their ongoing production, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine used the HEK-293 cell line from a 1972 abortion only to confirm that messenger RNA was properly coding for the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While still ethically disconcerting, the fact that this remote and limited interaction with abortion does not involve the continuing use of an aborted fetal cell line makes it less ethically problematic compared to its competitors that use these cell lines for ongoing vaccine production…When we examine the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in light of ethical principles of (a) loving our neighbor by protecting them through our own vaccination, (b) the distance in time from an abortion connection, and (c) the fact that the vaccine does not continue to use cell lines derived from abortion, we find these factors considerable in mitigating the ethical concerns and opening the door to receiving the vaccine in good conscience.[6]

Personally, I was so convinced by the science behind the mRNA approach that I volunteered to be part of the trial for Moderna Therapeutics. I was denied because the trials were not being done in our area. I remain confident of its efficacy and while not as pure in its ethical development as I would wish, it looks to be far better than the alternatives.

As an aside, I have predicted for the past 4-5 months that in the process of finding the best vaccine to fight this virus, we will stumble across a “cure” for the common cold. I suspect that the mRNA approach is where that discovery will be found.

A quest for a “perfect” solution in an imperfect world using imperfect resources carried out by imperfect people is continually frustrating. I understand why some people are hesitant to even pursue a first-round vaccine which has demonstrated a 95% success rate in phase 3 trials. I also understand trying to make the largest and loudest objection in the use of fetal tissue at any phase of a research process. Yet, on this side of heaven, we will not find the perfection we desire. As we attempt to “perfectly” show our allegiance to God and gratitude for his grace by loving him and loving others, I am compelled to favor the mRNA approach which presently offers the best hope to humanly beat the virus. I would not dare burden the consciences of others by insisting that “this” is the course we must all follow. Rather, it is a decision rooted in my own responsive love to God’s grace in Christ, and the product of intensive research thus far. We will, of course, continue the research.

As we have seen in the history of Christian Life Resources, any crisis, whether an unplanned pregnancy or diagnosis of a terminal condition, serves as an opportunity to point heavenward. We are stewards of God’s resources of life and material goods. In managing these resources, we ease suffering, patch up wounds, and care for others. In our faith, we continually and confidently point heavenward as the place secured for us through the blood of Christ. A crisis is what Peter talked about when he said:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

The pandemic has given us a crisis within which we can display and testify to the hope we have of eternal life in Christ. People will observe that hope when they see our gentleness and respect. They will see confidence and calmness in us while others may panic. They will want to know the reason for our strength. They will want to know the reason for the hope that we have.

The crisis, therefore, can either become a bridge or a wall. If we demonstrate a contrary spirit, fear, or ignorance, we essentially build a wall. No one will come to us asking us for the reason for the hope we have when they do not see hope. It is when we are facing a crisis with unexpected calm and focus that people will see a bridge which will prompt some to approach us for a conversation.

As we continue to plod through this pandemic, refine your bridge-building skills. Do not say less than should be said and be equally concerned to not say too much. Demonstrate a demeanor in which people see in you Christ’s patience, love, and concern for souls. Invite the conversation with your words and demeanor, and use the opportunity to point heavenward.

~ Pastor Robert Fleischmann, Christian Life Resources’ National Director

[1] https://biodifferences.com/difference-between-mrna-trna-and-rrna.html#:~:text=of%20the%20ribosomes.-,mRNA%20carries%20genetic%20information%20from%20the%20nucleus%20to%20ribosomes%20for,for%20the%20formation%20of%20ribosomes. (accessed: August 2, 2020)

[2] Transcription of testimony by Dr. Alex J. van der Eb before the US FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research: Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, Wednesday, March 16, 2001, p.82.

[3] Interview of Dr. Meaney on EWTN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEx1SSV5lW8 (accessed November 19, 2020)

[4] https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/10/72350/ (accessed November 19, 2020)

[5] https://lozierinstitute.org/an-ethics-assessment-of-covid-19-vaccine-programs/ (accessed November 19, 2020)

[6] https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/11/72753/ (accessed November 19, 2020)

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