When the Trump administration cut federal funding for most new scientific research projects involving fetal tissue from abortions in 2019, officials argued that regardless of scientific benefits, there was an urgent moral imperative to find alternative research methods.
"Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is a top priority for President Trump's administration," the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement released at the time.
The treatment for Covid-19 that Mr. Trump received – a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies that he called a "cure" in a festival video posted on Twitter – was developed using human cells obtained from a fetus that was aborted decades ago .
Remdesivir, an antiviral drug given to the president late last week, was also developed using these cell lines. At least two companies, Moderna and AstraZeneca, battling for a vaccine against the coronavirus, are also relying on the cells. Johnson & Johnson is testing its vaccine in another so-called cell line, originally made from fetal tissue.
All three vaccine manufacturers have received federal funding as participants in the White House's Operation Warp Speed.
WITH. Technology Review first reported that cells originally derived from an aborted fetus were used to develop the Regeneron antibody cocktail.
A Trump administration official argued Thursday that the president's acceptance of the treatments was not a contradiction in terms.
The government's policy of fetal tissue research "explicitly excluded" cell lines made before June 2019, said the official, who refused to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
Scientific products made using cell lines that previously existed "would not imply government policy on using human fetal tissue from elective abortions," the official said.
Some scholars saw a double standard in the President's approval. "Hypocrisy has never bothered the man, as far as I can tell," said Lawrence Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego who used fetal tissue in his research, of Mr. Trump.
Dr. Deepak Srivastava, a pediatric cardiologist who headed the International Society for Stem Cell Research until July, said, "If you oppose this research, you should be prepared not to take a drug that was developed with it."
For decades, fetal tissue from abortions has been critical to scientific research into treatments for conditions ranging from birth defects to Ebola to cancer. And fetal tissue was especially important for studying the immune system, a key to developing treatments and vaccines for infectious diseases like Covid-19.
The cells that have been used by most of the companies now trying to come up with a Covid-19 treatment called the 293T line come from the kidney tissue of a fetus that was aborted in the 1970s. A similar cell line, Per.C6, was obtained in 1985 from the retinal cells of an aborted 18 week old fetus.
The treatment that Mr. Trump called a cure for Covid-19 is a cocktail of two monoclonal antibodies made by Regeneron. These antibodies are synthesized outside the body and then infused into patients to fight off the infection.
Regeneron tested the antibodies against virus-like particles generated using human 293T cells. The virus particles serve as a proxy for the living coronavirus; Otherwise a laboratory with extremely high levels of biosafety would be required. (Eli Lilly, who also makes monoclonal antibodies, uses the same method.)
"293Ts were used to test the antibodies' ability to neutralize the virus," said Alexandra Bowie, a Regeneron spokeswoman. "They haven't been used in any other way, and fetal tissue hasn't been used in research."
Mr. Trump's resounding approval of Regeneron could run counter to some religious groups and conservative leaders who have questioned the cells' use to find treatments or vaccines for use against the coronavirus.
"One concern about the ethical evaluation of viral vaccine candidates is the potential use of abortion-derived cell lines in development, production, or testing," wrote David Prentice, vice president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, in September.
His analysis identified 13 vaccine candidates for the coronavirus that are based on fetal cell lines.
Such research is "morally not responsible," said Dr. James Sherley, a research scientist at the Charlotte Lozier Institute and director of the adult stem cell company Asymmetrex. "There are alternatives – there are many options that do not require the death of anyone."
But other conservative leaders have approved the cells' use, noting that they were developed decades ago, long before concerns about their fetal origins became a political issue.
In a letter to Mr. Trump in June, more than 100 members of Congress praised the president for "efforts to protect the sanctity of all human life," but identified 293T and Per.C6 as "some ancient cell lines."
On Thursday, some scientists rejected this argument. "It is not ethical to say, 'Just because they were made a long time ago is okay if it will save my life," said Dr. Srivastava.
Recognition…Nicholas Kamm / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images
Scientists argue that the position of administration prevented life-saving research. Dr. Warner Greene, a researcher at the Gladstone Institutes, a nonprofit research organization in San Francisco, said, "The president's decision regarding fetal tissue research has thwarted many, many lines of promise."
At the time of the ban, Dr. Greene found a cure for H.I.V. with an employee of Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont. The federal ban abruptly cut their funding.
"Our experiments were stopped and stopped," said Dr. Greene, adding that work has not yet resumed.
Because the administration severely restricted research on fetal tissue, it set up an ethics committee to review scientific proposals to the National Institutes of Health. Fellowship renewals and new fetal tissue projects are now under review by the Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board, which met for the first time in July.
In August, the Board rejected 13 of the 14 proposals it considered. The approved proposal was based on tissue already acquired.
Some critics have suggested that scientists use tissues from spontaneous rather than elective abortions. However, spontaneous abortions often result from genetic and developmental disorders, which make them unreliable for use in scientific research.
As an alternative to cells derived from fetal tissue, scientists can use mice engineered to carry human genes that can replicate parts of the immune system.
"There have been other modifications that some claim are almost as good and helpful, but they are not the same as the truly humanized mouse made from human fetal tissue," said Dr. Srivastava.
In July, the stem cell society sent the new ethics committee a letter signed by 90 scientific, medical, and patient organizations calling on the committee to approve the use of fetal tissue to develop treatments for Covid-19 and other diseases.
"Fetal tissue has unique and valuable properties that often cannot be replaced by other cell types," the statement said.
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform noted last month that the Trump administration's ban on using federal funding for research on fetal tissue was "based on ideological objections, not an assessment of the scientific merit of such projects."