Australia’s multifaith leaders are split over the use of foetal cells in a coronavirus vaccine

Jewish, Hindu and Islamic leaders in Australia say they would welcome the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine if it is successful, despite other religious leaders raising ethical concerns over the use of cell lines from an electively aborted fetus.

Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies, and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Makarios have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, urging him to reconsider a deal to purchase 25 million doses of the vaccine.

The letter, which was publicly released on Monday, described the harvesting of foetal tissue as “deeply immoral” and warned members of their congregations may decide to refuse the vaccine.

“People of faith and people of no faith would have concerns about the use of aborted tissue from a foetus,” Archbishop Davies told SBS News on Tuesday.

“I will honour people for what decision they make, but I don’t want them to make a decision ill-informed and unaware of the genesis of this vaccine.”

But other senior religious leaders in Australia have told SBS News the risk to human life posed by the virus meant an effective vaccine would be welcomed. 

“We are very much in favour of anything that can save human life, so we’re looking forward very much to the development of a safe and reliable vaccine,” Great Synagogue Chief Minister and Senior Rabbi Ben Elton said on Tuesday.

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That view was echoed by Bilal Rauf, spokesperson for the Australian National Imams Council, who said: “At an Islamic principle level, the highest principle is the preservation of its life and its wellbeing”. 

President of the Hindu Council of Australia, Prakash Mehta, also said Hindus would have “no problem” welcoming the vaccine if development was successful.

Australia last week signed a letter of intent with developer AstraZeneca and Oxford University to purchase 25 million doses of the vaccine if trials proved successful, with the inoculation offered free to all Australians.

The vaccination uses HEK-293 cells, a strain originally derived from human kidney cells grown in an aborted fetus in 1973.

Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher.


Australian National University researcher Gaetan Burgio said the use of cell lines from elective abortions has been part of a standard scientific process for more than 50 years.

“[HEK-293 cells] are the most common cell-line used in laboratories,” he told SBS News.

“Without this cell-line, the virus cannot replicate. In short, we cannot manufacture this vaccine.”

Deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth on Monday said he was aware of the concerns raised by some religious leaders, but assured the public there were strong regulations around the use of human cells.

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“The reality for the vaccines is that they need cell cultures in order for us to grow them,” he said. “Human cells are a really important part of their development.”

A spokesperson for Mr Morrison’s office also acknowledged the concerns, stating that the government was investing in alternative vaccines that do not contain foetal cell lines, including one being developed by the University of Queensland. 

But, they said: “The government will always follow the medical advice and will be encouraging as widespread use of the vaccine or vaccines as is possible.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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