Gaining clarity on the ethical issues of a possible COVID-19 vaccine

Professor Megan Munsie from the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience unpacks the ethical concerns from using human cell lines in the production of a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

Following the announcement that the Australian Government had signed a letter of intent to secure supply of the AstraZaneca/Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine in August, numerous religious leaders have come forward to express concerns regarding the ethical dilemma posed by this.

The central concern expressed by these religious leaders is that the production of the vaccine uses a cell line – HEK-293 – that is “cultured from electively aborted human foetus” and that the Australian Government should support supply of an alternative “uncontroversial” vaccine if mandatory vaccination for COVID-19 is to be introduced.

Professor Megan Munsie from the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, alongside colleagues from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences delve deeper into the ethical implications of using cell line HEK-293, noting that the actual vaccination does not contain any foetal cells, or pieces of foetal DNA. Rather, the descendants of foetal cells are cultured in the laboratory to produce cell lines.

Megan Munsie

Professor Munsie heads a research laboratory in the ethical, legal and social implications of stem cell research at the University of Melbourne. Her innovative program involves rigorous empirical research to underpin the development of evidence-based engagement, education and awareness initiatives as well as to inform national and international policy responses to key issues.

She is also the deputy director of the university’s Centre for Stem Cell Systems. As a trained developmental biologist, Megan combines her scientific expertise with a deep understanding of the ethical and regulatory considerations required to facilitate responsible research in stem cell science and its clinical translation.

In the article published in the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit, Professor Munsie and her colleagues explore the ethical implications of using this cell line in the context of religion, medicine and general ethical practice. They also reiterate the importance of upholding rigorous ethical standards in both laboratory and clinical research and ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine on a global scale.

Read the full article in Pursuit