FULL CLAIM: “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has aborted fetal tissue from aborted babies from the retina as well as from kidney cells”
On 27 February 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a third COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use. The vaccine was developed by Janssen, a pharmaceutical company from the Johnson & Johnson group, and has two advantages over the vaccines already authorized from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech: it only requires one dose per person and it can be stored at 2-8ºC. The authorization of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to scale up the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
However, posts on various social media platforms claiming that the vaccine contained biological tissue from aborted fetuses went viral in March 2021. One example is this video that says “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has aborted fetal tissue from aborted babies from the retina as well as from kidney cells”. Similar claims have been made in the past and were proved inaccurate.
This claim that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has aborted tissues is inaccurate. According to information from the FDA, the vaccine is composed of one active pharmaceutical ingredient and several additional molecules that adjust the pH and stabilize the product:
- replication-incompetent recombinant adenovirus type 26 (Ad26) vector (this is the active pharmaceutical ingredient that will help the recipient develop immunity against COVID-19)
- citric acid monohydrate
- trisodium citrate dihydrate
- 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HBCD)
- polysorbate 80, sodium chloride
- sodium hydroxide
- hydrochloric acid
As the ingredient list shows, no cells or aborted fetal tissue are present in the vaccine.
While no cells or tissues are present in the vaccine itself, a cell line named Per.C6 is required to produce the vaccine. Cell lines are cells that were originally extracted from animals and are able to proliferate in Petri dishes and incubators in the lab. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine strategy relies on a viral vector, specifically a genetically modified adenovirus named Ad26 that is unable to cause disease. Adenoviruses possess many properties that make them good candidates for viral vector vaccines. For instance, they have been extensively studied by scientists and are easy to modify in the laboratory. They are also good at entering cells and inducing an immune response in humans.
In the case of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, the adenovirus Ad26 serves as a vector or a “delivery man” that carries the genetic blueprint of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein into human cells. Equipped with this blueprint, the cells in the bodies of vaccinated people produce the Spike protein, which in turn triggers an immune response and leads to the formation of an immunological memory against SARS-CoV-2.
Viruses can only replicate in the presence of cells, and Ad26 is no exception. Therefore, using cells to grow the virus was essential for producing the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The company uses the PER.C6 cell line, originally derived from embryonic retina cells isolated in 1985 from an aborted 18-week fetus. No other cell type is involved in the manufacturing of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. For that reason, the claim made in this video that kidney cells are present in the vaccine is also inaccurate.
Cell lines such as PER.C6 have the ability to grow forever in Petri dishes. This means that the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine does not require nor incentivize abortions; the same cell line will be used for the entire production of that vaccine.
Although human cells are instrumental for Ad26 production, they do not make it into the final form of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. First, virus production tends to burst the cells, so the PER.C6 cells used for production are lost in the process. In addition, the production step is followed by a very stringent purification phase. The purification of viruses generally involves several filtration steps to remove all unnecessary or undesirable components for the final form of the vaccine. Details of the specific manufacturing process are not publicly available. However, Johnson & Johnson filed a patent for a “method for the production of Ad26 adenoviral vectors” detailing virus purification methods that can be used in the Ad26 production process. It highlights that the cells initially used to make the Ad26 particles are destroyed. Then, it describes how several filtration rounds and other separation techniques, such as chromatography, are used to keep solely Ad26 in the final product.
In summary, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t contain cells or tissues from aborted fetuses nor from any other source. A specific cell line originally derived from an aborted fetus is indeed used in the manufacturing process, but its components are removed during the purification step. This cell line is grown in Petri dishes in the lab and therefore doesn’t require nor incentivize abortions.
The drug discovery blog In the Pipeline provides an interesting overview of the manufacturing process and challenges of adenovirus-based vaccines.
- 1 – Wold & Toth (2013) Adenovirus Vectors for Gene Therapy, Vaccination and Cancer Gene Therapy. Current Gene Therapy.
- 2 – Fallaux et al. (1998) New helper cells and matched early region 1-deleted adenovirus vectors prevent generation of replication-competent adenoviruses. Human Gene Therapy.
- 3 – Vellinga et al. (2014) Challenges in manufacturing adenoviral vectors for global vaccine product deployment. Human Gene Therapy.
- 4 – Segura et al. (2011) Overview of current scalable methods for purification of viral vectors. Methods in Molecular Biology.