Fact check: Lung tissue of an ‘aborted male foetus’ is not in the vaccine for coronavirus

Update Nov. 17: article updated to include reference to 293 HEK cell line in paragraph five and additional comment from vaccine study co-author.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

A Facebook video discussing the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19 has falsely claimed it contains tissue from an aborted human foetus.

The video (here), broadcast live on Nov. 15, first shows a picture on a computer screen of the packaging for the AstraZeneca-developed COVID-19 vaccine ChAdOx1-S, also known as AZD1222. It then changes to a window showing a page of research into AZD1222, which reads: “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” (here) .

The user in the video then switches to a Wikipedia page for further research on this mention of MRC-5, which she points out is a cell line “originally developed from research deriving lung tissue of a 14-week-old aborted Caucasian male fetus” ( . Speaking to her audience about the composition of the vaccine, the user says: “one thing it definitely has is the lung tissue of a 14-week-old aborted Caucasian male foetus.”

This is not true. AstraZeneca has confirmed to Reuters via email that AZD1222 was not developed using MRC-5 cell lines. The study, which was published on Research Square and was referred to by the Facebook user, is an independent study led by scientists at the University of Bristol (here, here) to test the efficacy of the potential vaccine prior to human trials. It tested this by observing how AZD1222 gets to work when inserted into a human cell line, ie: MRC-5 cell lines. This is not the same as developing a vaccine whereby MRC-5 is an ingredient in the final product.

AZD1222 (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) is a weakened and non-replicating version of the common cold virus (adenovirus) taken from chimpanzees, which has been engineered to contain instructions for creating the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 (here, here) . An article published in the journal Nature (here) says the vaccine ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 used T-Rex 293 HEK cells in the virus propagation stage. This refers to 'human embryonic kidney' cells, which are from a different human cell line.

Dr David Matthews, a reader of virology at Bristol University and co-author on the vaccine study, told Reuters. “Many virus vaccines are made in embryonic/foetal derived cell lines and then the vaccine is purified away from these cells to exceptionally high standards. Most of these cell lines (including MRC-5 cells and 293 cells) were derived from tissue samples taken from foetuses aborted in the 1960s and 1970s and the cells have been grown in laboratories all over the world since then.”

Gary McLean, a professor of molecular immunology at London Metropolitan University, also told Reuters that this vaccine would also be “purified” of any contaminants before being used in humans. He said: “The AstraZeneca vaccine requires the adenoviral vector to be produced in these cells and it is then purified before administering to people.”

It is not accurate to say MRC-5 cell lines are the same cells from an aborted foetus. They are cell lines that have been grown in a laboratory from a primary cell culture originally taken from a foetus. For MRC-5 specifically, this was done on a male Caucasian foetus that was electively aborted in the 1960s (here, here). There is another cell line called WI-38 that was also propagated from a foetus aborted in the 1960s.

“There are no foetal cells used in any vaccine production process,” Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, told Reuters. “Some vaccines, including some of the COVID-19 vaccines are using cell strains that came from two foetuses that were aborted in the 1960s. It is important to note that the foetuses were not aborted because they were intended to be used in research and development. Over 50 years later, scientists are using descendants from that original cell line. Other vaccines made in this way include the polio and Ebola vaccines.”


False. There is no lung tissue of an aborted male foetus in the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine for coronavirus. The independent study referring to MRC-5, which was mentioned in the video, was part of pre-clinical research using foetal cell lines, and was not included in the manufacturing of the vaccine itself. Foetal cell lines are used to develop vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, but the vaccine goes through a purification process before delivery and these cells do not form a component of the vaccine.

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