An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs

James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D., David Prentice, Ph.D.   

This is Issue 46 in CLI’s On Point Series. To view this report as a PDF, see: On Point 46: An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs


The recent global concern for a devastating disease impact by COVID-19, the disease caused by the newly identified SARS-CoV-2 (CoV-19) coronavirus, has prompted a rapid intensification of efforts to develop an effective vaccine to limit the spread of the virus and to reduce COVID-19 illness and deaths.  A study from the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI) identified 115 COVID-19 vaccines in development.  At least 78 of these vaccine development initiatives were confirmed to be actively under way.  However, many of these active projects are still only at the laboratory investigation stage (1), with many different biological strategies being investigated (2).


As shown in Table 1, there are a number of COVID-19 vaccine programs that are now in registered clinical trials or in early pre-clinical stages of development.  Five of these 16 identified efforts use genetically engineered adenoviruses for production of CoV-19 products that are thought likely to make effective vaccines.  Engineered adenoviruses are established manufacturing vectors for gene therapies and viral vaccine development.  The safety of these genetically modified viruses is due to their inability to reproduce themselves in the absence of artificially supplied factors that promote their self-multiplication.  They are described as replication-deficient (RD) viruses.  In order to manufacture RD adenoviruses or, in the case of vaccine production, their CoV-19 viral products, their viral genomes are introduced into cultured human cells genetically engineered to make their missing required replication factors (3,4).  Several commonly used human cell lines developed for this function were established from cells taken from electively aborted human fetuses (3).


The use of cells from electively aborted fetuses for vaccine production makes these five COVID-19 vaccine programs unethical, because they exploit the innocent human beings who were aborted. While some may see no ethical problem, for many a straight line can be drawn from the ending of a human life in an abortion to a vaccine or drug created using cells derived from the harvesting of the fetal tissue.  Even if the cells have been propagated for years in the laboratory far removed from the abortion, that connection line remains.  Thus, use of such cells for vaccine production raises problems of conscience for anyone who might be offered that vaccine and is aware of its lineage.  Moreover, the possibility of conscientious objection by those to whom a vaccine is offered creates ethical demands on the policymakers, healthcare officials, scientists, vaccine creators and funders, whether or not they themselves have an ethical concern, because of the question of access to the vaccine by the entire citizenry in good conscience. (5)  This is especially true if alternative production methods and vaccines are possible for which there is no ethical question.


In June 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that it would no longer provide intramural funding for government research that requires new acquisition of tissues harvested from victims of ongoing elective abortion, would empanel an ethics review board to review all new or renewal extramural research applications proposing use of fetal tissue, and would provide funding to optimize and develop alternative research models that do not rely on human fetal tissue from elective abortions (6).  Funding of new research using abortion-derived cells established prior to the new HHS rule (i.e., HEK293, Per.C6) was allowed to continue.

Ten of the 16 COVID-19 vaccine programs identified in Table 1 underscore the many alternative strategies available and useful for COVID-19 vaccine development that pose no ethics trespasses.  In total, the U.S. government has invested another nearly half billion dollars to support two of these vaccine programs (Table 1, B4, B7).  For an 11th vaccine program, at this time, it is indeterminate whether cells derived from electively aborted human fetuses are used (Table 1, C).  Although RD adenovirus strategies are not among the current ethical vaccine programs, good ethics do not preclude the use of adenoviruses to develop COVID-19 vaccines.  Human cell lines engineered for RD adenovirus production that were ethically established from amniocentesis cells have been available for more than a decade (3,4).


Adherence to the highest ethical standards in science and medicine serves all humanity, because it values the dignity of every human life and respects the consciences of all, without exploitation of any group.

Table 1 legend

1, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Science NCT number for clinical trials listed on U.S.

2, N.A., not applicable

3, Replication defective (RD) adenovirus vaccines are generally produced in one of several human cell lines derived from the cells of electively aborted human fetuses (e.g., HEK293 and PER.C6; ref. 2).  The specific line utilized was not discernible from identified public reports.  Based on cells used for earlier RD adenovirus vaccines developed, HEK293 cells are the most likely line used.

4, Manufactured by CanSino Biologics, Inc.

5, NLF, no registration listing found

6, HHS-BARDA, U.S. Health and Human Services-Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority

7, Ref. 7

8, APC, antigen-presenting cells

9, DC/T, dendritic cells and T cells

10, CEPI, Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations

11, Ref. 8

12, Donor-consented human umbilical cord and placental cells



James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D., is an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute


David A. Prentice, Ph.D. is Vice President and Research Director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute




  1. Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovation. 2020. CEPI publishes analysis of COVID-19 vaccine development landscape.
  1. Callaway, E. 2020. The race for coronavirus vaccines: a graphical guide. Nature 580: 576-577. doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01221-y.
  1. Kovesdi, I. and Hedley, S. J. 2010. Adenoviral producer cells. Viruses 2(8): 1681-1703. doi: 10.3390/v2081681
  1. Kochanek, S. and Schiedner, G. 2003. Permanent amniocytic cell line, its production and use for the production of gene transfer vectors. USPTO US6558948B1.
  1. Watt, H. 27 April 2020. COVID-19 Vaccines and Use of Foetal Cell-lines. The Anscombe Bioethics Centre. Accessed May 4, 2020 at:
  1. Statement from the Department of Health and Human Services, June 5, 2019, accessed February 19, 2020 at:
  1. BARDA’s rapidly-expanding COVID-19 medical countermeasure portfolio. 2020.
  1. Weil, D. 2020. Inovio gets $6.9M in funding for South Korea coronavirus vaccine trial. The Street.



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