I realize that I probably sound a lot like one of those annoying scolds who keeps saying, “I told you so,” but, nearly two decades into my second “career” writing about pseudoscience and conspiracy theories like those promoted by the antivaccine movement, it’s hard to resist. The reason is that everything old is new again. The same claims that I’ve been discussing right here on this very blog since 2004 and then before that on Usenet and other discussion forums have not only resurfaced since the COVID-19 pandemic hit us in early 2020, but they’ve been turbocharged. Somewhat annoying to us relative old-timers, a lot of colleagues are now noticing antivaccine lies and conspiracy theories that we’ve known about and been warning about for years and years, such as the misuse of the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database; claims that vaccines kill, cause infertility in girls, and the like; fear mongering over vaccines selecting for more deadly variants of the coronavirus; and minimization of COVID-19 as a disease that is not dangerous to the virtuous “healthy” people. (Just never mind those old people, who can’t help being old right now, because no one can control when they are born, and don’t get me started on the resurrection of old antivax conspiracy theories about the CDC.) So it is, yet again, with the claim that COVID-19 vaccines contain “aborted fetal tissue,” “fetal cells,” or “fetal DNA.” Just for yucks, I searched for the first time I ever wrote about this particular antivax trope, and it turned out to have been in 2005, when an antivaxxer claimed that the varicella vaccine contained “aborted fetal tissue.” (Hint: It didn’t and doesn’t.)
Longtime readers will recognize this as a hoary claim dating back a long time, but in the age of the pandemic I keep repeating that everything old is new again (because it is), as can be seen by this unattributed article at a website I hadn’t encountered before, The Vault Project entitled What You Need to Know About Aborted Fetal Ingredients and COVID Vaccines. Yes, it’s the same old claim that fetal “ingredients,” cells, DNA, or just miasma are in COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, it’s almost rather amusing. Given the level of pseudo-sophistication that previous iterations of this trope reached, with (for example) Theresa Deisher bending all her skills as a molecular biologist to argue, in effect, that fetal DNA is so magic that truly minuscule amounts of short fragments of fetal DNA can not only somehow pass through the blood-brain barrier but then also get into neurons and express “non-self” proteins that are then somehow recognized by the immune system to produce “autoimmunity” leading to—you guessed it!—autism. Never mind that the speculative contortions of science needed to make such claims, which can sound plausible to the scientifically ignorant and unsophisticated but, are laughed at by anyone who’s ever worked with DNA in a research lab. Then there was Sin Hang Lee, who used an incredibly sensitive nested PCR assay prone to false positives to “prove” that there was “fetal DNA” in Gardasil, even though what he discovered, if legit, was such an incredible small quantity of DNA left over from the cell line used in the manufacture of the vaccine as to be harmless. (Those were the days. They seem almost rather quaint in comparison to the weaponized disinformation of the last 20 months.)
But back to The Vault Project.
The first thing I noticed about The Vault Project is that none of the people behind the website are identified, at least not that I could find. Under the About Us section, there’s this:
The Vault Project was founded in 2021 out of a growing concern the COVID “pandemic” was being used as a mechanism to censor science, usher in unprecedented vaccine mandates and sweeping public health measures, and as a justification to infringe upon the individual liberties afforded to American citizens.
Our goal is to provide you with a comprehensive resource you can turn to for accurate information, studies and resources to help you navigate misinformation and vaccine mandates, and anything you need to assert your rights. We hope you’ll take what you learn here and educate others.
The information contained herein is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease. Parents, caregivers, consumers, patients, individuals and health practitioners must use their own judgment concerning specific treatment options. The Vault Project’s authors, editors, and principals disclaim any liability or responsibility to any person or organization for any loss, damage, expense, fine, injury or penalty that may arise or result from the use of any information, recommendations, opinions and/or errors on this website or in our articles. Any use of, or reliance on, information reflected on this website or in our articles is solely the responsibility of the viewer.
There’s nothing like a classic quack disclaimer to give me confidence in the website! Also, I do so love it that a quick WHOIS search demonstrated that The Vault Project registered its domain under a privacy service, to hide who owns it. I will concede that there are legitimate reasons for someone to do that. For example, personally I registered this domain under such a service for the simple reason that I didn’t want to have to have my address and phone number publicly available in the WHOIS record. However, whenever I see a website like The Vault Project registered this way, my skeptical antennae start twitching fiercely, particularly when no one behind the site is identified and all of the articles are attributed to “The Vault Project.” (To pre-empt antivaxxers, yes, I do use a pseudonym, but it’s very easy to find to who’s really behind the Insolence dished out here, because it’s right on the website if you bother to look for it.) Also, The Vault Project appears to have gone out of its way to hide where its server is located, given the traceroute search I did.
But enough of the astroturfy-appearing nature of this website and the likely rich trove of blog material for me that I’ve discovered. What about its claims about fetal cells in vaccines? Unsurprisingly, they’re nothing more than the same old claims repackaged and repurposed for COVID-19. I do realize that I’ve already written about how antivaxxers have resurrected claims about “fetal cells” for COVID-19 vaccines, but this article seems to be a more comprehensive “state of the antivax lie” than the one that I discussed in December, just as the vaccines were rolling out under an emergency use authorization (EUA) for health care professionals.
The Vault Project gives away the game right from the very first sentence of its post, and it’s the same game that it’s always been:
If you’re planning to request an exemption to COVID vaccines on religious grounds, arguably your biggest supporting argument will be that all three manufacturers of U.S. authorized vaccines use cell lines obtained from aborted babies in the research, development and/or manufacturing of their products.
To this, you will state you have a “sincerely held religious belief” that prevents you from injecting the cells, tissue, DNA and proteins of an aborted baby into your body, an objection to the practice of abortion itself and anything derived from it, and/or an objection to participating in a practice that undoubtedly encourages more abortions — something your faith, whatever that may be, prohibits.
The story should end there, as it doesn’t matter what belief any other entity, denomination or religious leader holds on the issue — what matters are your own subjective beliefs. However, that won’t keep you from being subjected to a barrage of misinformation designed to undermine the severity of the aborted fetal issue or your right to obtain a religious exemption.
You may have been told none of the COVID vaccines contain aborted fetal ingredients, that it was just “one abortion” from a very long time ago if it does or it was so far removed from the original abortion it couldn’t possibly be associated with any religious or ethical issues. Why? Because there’s a concerted effort to undermine the grounds for the religious exemption so that more people are vaccinated.
That bit about “other entity, denomination or religious leader” is a clear nod to the Roman Catholic Church, arguably the biggest, baddest anti-abortion force in the world that’s done more to harm women’s healthcare through its efforts to ban contraception and abortion. As those of us who have been combatting this particular antivaccine trope for decades keep pointing out, the Roman Catholic Church has stated quite clearly (at the behest of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope and was no liberal) that the great good of vaccination far outweighs the “distant evil” of the creation of fetal cell lines decades ago (in one case, almost 60 years ago) from aborted fetuses, making it morally acceptable to use them if there are no other alternatives. (There aren’t for COVID-19 vaccines, and the same is true for several other childhood vaccines that use such cell lines in their manufacture and have prevented billions of cases of disease and saved many millions, if not billions, of lives over the last several decades.)
It’s also very telling to note how much effort and verbiage The Vault Project expends right up front to discount common retorts to antivax efforts to link vaccines to abortion through “fetal parts,” “fetal cells,” “fetal DNA,” and, it sometimes seems, “essence of abortion.” Again, as I’ve written many times, the fetal cell lines used to manufacture some childhood vaccines are old and have been passaged (replated in order to continue growing) many many times, for example, the WI-38 cell line, which is a human diploid fibroblast cell line derived from a three month old fetus aborted therapeutically in 1962. As much as The Vault Project tries to imply otherwise, there’s a huge difference between a cell line that was derived from a fetus nearly 60 years ago and actual “fetal cells.” Apparently the “essence of fetus” is like homeopathy. It becomes more powerful the more distant the creation of the cell line is and the less connection there is to the original abortion.
The specific cell lines that The Vault Project complains about, using inflammatory language that “any vaccine that uses aborted fetal cell lines during manufacturing, like the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine, may also contain residual cells, DNA or proteins from an aborted baby,” are different ones, though; so let’s take a look. Interestingly, the link used by The Vault Project to substantiate its claim leads to an FDA sheet about the J&J vaccine that says nothing more than that the “Ad26 vector expressing the SARS-CoV-2 S protein is grown in PER.C6 TetR cells, in media containing amino acids and no animal-derived proteins” and that after propagation “the vaccine is processed through several purification steps, formulated with inactive ingredients and filled into vials.”
All of this leads to the same sort of claims that I’ve discussed regarding “fetal DNA” in previous vaccines before the pandemic:
According to Janssen’s website, “The SARS-CoV-2 vaccine research program is leveraging Janssen’s AdVac® and PER.C6® technologies in an effort to help combat the current COVID-19 pandemic.” The FDA’s EUA fact sheet for Healthcare Providers and the Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine EUA Letter of Authorization issued by the agency further state:Each 0.5 mL dose of Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine is formulated to contain 5×1010 virus particles (VP) and the following inactive ingredients: citric acid monohydrate (0.14 mg), trisodium citrate dihydrate (2.02 mg), ethanol (2.04 mg), 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HBCD) (25.50 mg), polysorbate-80 (0.16 mg), sodium chloride (2.19 mg). Each dose may also contain residual amounts of host cell proteins (≤0.15 mcg) and/or host cell DNA (≤3 ng).The “host cell proteins” and/or “host cell DNA” is referring to the PER.C6 cell line used to culture the AD26 vector, and the language used is consistent with the vaccine package inserts for other vaccines that contain aborted fetal cells, DNA and proteins.
First of all, the maximum of 0.15 g of protein and 3 ng of genomic DNA that might be present is not very much DNA, and most likely that DNA is sheered into short fragments. Fear mongering about it is nothing more than what Sin Hang Lee did about Gardasil over ten years ago. (I swear, antivaxxers have the same playbook, and they use it obsessively over and over and over again for all vaccines.)
PER.C6 is, like WI-38 and other cell lines used to grow vectors for vaccine research and manufacture, a cell line derived from a fetus in the distant past. In this case, PER.C6 was derived from the retinal cells of an 18-week fetus:
The PER.C6 cell line is derived from human embryonic retinal cells, originally from the retinal tissue of an 18 week old fetus aborted in 1985 and further developed and prepared as cell line by transfection with defined E1 region of the adenovirus type 5 followed by selection for transfectants with an immortal phenotype. At the beginning, this cell line was mainly applied for the production of human adenovirus vectors for use in vaccine development and gene therapy, and further optimization makes PER.C6 become a superexcellent host cell line for large-scale industrial production of therapeutic proteins, especially the human IgG.
I like to point out that PER.C6 and cell lines like it aren’t used because scientists somehow love abortion and are thus utterly immoral, which The Vault Press goes on and on about to try to insinuate and outright claim. They’re used because they facilitate manufacturing huge quantities of much more standardized and safer vaccines that can save (and have saved) many millions of lives over the last six decades.
Unsurprisingly, The Vault Project goes on to fear monger, pointing out yet again that the PER.C6 cell line was derived from retinal cells of an 18 week old fetus aborted in 1985 and that the MRC-5 cell line (which I’ve discussed before) was developed from lung tissue from a 14 week old fetus aborted in 1966. They also mention the HEK-293 cell line, which was derived in 1973 from the kidney of a fetus—it’s not known if the fetus miscarried or was aborted (presumably if it miscarried The Vault Project shouldn’t have a problem with it but probably still does)—and used by Moderna and Pfizer during the research phase to develop their mRNA-based vaccines. (I note that neither HEK-293 cells nor any other fetal cell lines are used in the manufacture of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.) They also go out of their way to make the cells seem scary, for instance, pointedly referring to PER.C6 cells as “tumorigenic” and pointing to this FDA article, which says:
Virus-based vaccines are made in living cells (cell substrates). Some manufacturers are investigating the use of new cell lines to make vaccines. The continual growth of cell lines ensures that there is a consistent supply of the same cells that can yield high quantities of the vaccine.
In some cases the cell lines that are used might be tumorigenic, that is, they form tumors when injected into rodents. Some of these tumor-forming cell lines may contain cancer-causing viruses that are not actively reproducing. Such viruses are hard to detect using standard methods. These latent, or “quiet,” viruses pose a potential threat, since they might become active under vaccine manufacturing conditions. Therefore, to ensure the safety of vaccines, our laboratory is investigating ways to activate latent viruses in cell lines and to detect the activated viruses, as well as other unknown viruses, using new technologies. We will then adapt our findings to detect viruses in the same types of cell substrates that are used to produce vaccines. We are also trying to identify specific biological processes that reflect virus activity.
Here’s the thing. First, “tumorigenic” usually means that the cells can form tumors in experimental mouse strains whose immune systems have been crippled in order to allow non-mouse tumor cells to grow, in other words the same sorts of mouse strains (like nude or SCID mice) used in cancer research to grow human tumor cells as xenografts. Second, the very FDA article cited explains that the FDA goes to great lengths to “detect endogenous retroviruses and latent DNA viruses during evaluation of cell substrates for vaccine safety.” These are the sorts of things that could theoretically be tumorigenic in humans. Overall, The Vault Project is clearly trying to make these cell lines sound a lot scarier than they are.
They’re also doing their best to portray the scientists who isolated these cell lines between 35-60 years ago as evil, or at least immoral, beasts who couldn’t wait to cut open aborted fetuses to get at those sweet, sweet cells within. The Vault Project cites scientists saying that it can take several abortions to get a single cell line, which makes it sound as though several are done to get each cell lines, but in reality developing an immortalized cell line from primary cells isolated from an organism—any organism—is difficult. We’re a lot better at it now than we were decades ago, but it often takes several failed attempts before there is success, which is why The Vault Project cites quotes by like this one by Dr. Alex Van der Eb, a Dutch molecular biologist and virologist:
So I isolated retina from a fetus, from a healthy fetus as far as could be seen, of 18 weeks old. There was nothing special with a family history or the pregnancy was completely normal up to the 18 weeks, and it turned out to be a socially indicated abortus — abortus provocatus, and that was simply because the woman wanted to get rid of the fetus.
There was permission, et cetera, and that was, however, was in 1985, ten years before this. This shows that the cells were isolated in October, 1985, Laeiden University in my lab. At that time already ’85, I should say the cells were frozen, stored in liquid nitrogen, and in 1995 one of these was thawed for the generation of the PER.C6 cells.
And this is the final slide just showing you some comparisons between [HEK] 293 and PER.C6. Again, I remind you that both cell lines were made in my lab for different reasons. The objective, as I indicated, is for 293 — was basic research, and we have done many different transformation studies after that, not transformation studies, but gene expressions studies with human embryonic kidney cells in the years following that up to now, I would say.
Leading to this kicker:
According to Van der Eb, the PER.C6 cell line was made specifically for pharmaceutical manufacturing of adenovirus vectors. “I realize that this sounds a bit commercial, but PER. C6 were made for that particular purpose,” he said.
Note that the implication is that the scientists wanted the cells for commercial purposes. Yet the original cells were stored in Dr. Van der Eb’s freezer for a decade before they were thawed out in order to try to immortalize them into a cell line that could be used for gene expression studies in basic research. What follows are multiple quotes by scientists claiming that the fetuses must be very fresh in order to get viable cells from them, describing in detail how the kidney or other organs had to be minced up with scissors and then trypsinized before being grown in medium containing fetal calf serum. (Trypsin is a digestive enzyme that cleaves proteins at a specific site that is used to separate cells from each other by dissolving the protein matrix that holds them together in organs.)
I also note that The Vault Project tries very hard to weave a conspiracy theory by pointing how the document of the VRBPAC meeting in which Dr. Van der Eb said these thing is no longer on the FDA website, even though websites get rearranged for various reasons and links change or disappear. Could it be that the FDA had nefarious purposes in removing the document? Maybe, but more likely it was, as was observed elsewhere, because the meeting was 20 years ago and the FDA removed documents more than ten years old, although the paper was there as late as around 2017. Whatever happened, the document is available at various Archive sites like Archive.org’s Wayback Machine. Otherwise, how could The Vault Press ever have gotten a hold of it?
Then, of course, The Vault Project invokes…Project Veritas! (Never invoke Project Veritas, one of the lyingest right wing propaganda outfits there is, masters of dishonest undercover “sting” operations, secret recordings, and deceptively edited videos promoting right wing disinformation.) Apparently, Project Veritas has been trying to discredit COVID-19 vaccines (because of course it is) by issuing videos like this:
On Oct. 6, 2021, Project Veritas released the fifth video in its COVID vaccine investigative series featuring an interview with Melissa Strickler, a Manufacturing Quality Auditor with Pfizer. Strickler leaked internal emails showing corporate executives telling staff to be secretive about the use of human fetal tissue in laboratory testing of the COVID vaccine.
Vanessa Gelman, Pfizer Senior Director of Worldwide Research said in a leaked email:From the perspective of corporate affairs, we want to avoid having the information on fetal cells floating out there. […] The risk of communicating this right now outweighs any potential benefit we could see, particularly with general members of the public who may take this information and use it in ways we may not want out there. We have not received any questions from policymakers or media on this issue in the last few weeks, so we want to avoid raising this if possible.
“We have been trying as much as possible to not mention the fetal cell lines. […] One or more cell lines with an origin that can be traced back to human fetal tissue has been used in laboratory tests associated with the vaccine program,” Gelman said.
When Gelman was asked by a colleague how he should respond to a medical group who specifically asked whether Pfizer made “use of a cell line from an aborted fetus” when carrying out confirmatory tests for their vaccine, Gelman said the colleague should say:
“Human fetal derived cell lines are not used to produce our investigational vaccine, which consists of synthetic and enzymatically produced components,” but should not disclose that one or more cell lines with an “origin that can be traced back to human fetal tissue” were used in laboratory tests associated with the vaccine program.
The wag in me can’t help but note that this is perfectly reasonable, given longstanding attempts of antivaxxers to weaponize abortion against vaccines, something I bet that Pfizer has known about for a long time, given that it’s not a new tactic. Of course, The Vault Project tries very hard to make it sound so very, very nefarious.
Basically, The Vault Project’s article does nothing more than recycle, regurgitate, and reinvent very old antivaccine talking points based on a favorite antivaccine tactic, to cite components of vaccines to try to induce revulsion. At its heart, it’s nothing more than what Bill Maher once did when he referred to vaccines as “disease matter” or when Jenny McCarthy referred to all the “toxins” in vaccines, just using abortion.
I conclude by citing a factsheet by the North Dakota Department of Health on COVID-19 Vaccines & Fetal Cell Lines:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops goes further and has stated: “receiving a COVID-19 vaccine ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community. In this way, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good…Given the urgency of this crisis, the lack of available alternative vaccines, and the fact that the connection between an abortion that occurred decades ago and receiving a vaccine produced today is remote, inoculation with the new COVID-19 vaccines in these circumstances can be morally justified.”
On March 2nd, 2021, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement which addressed the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine. The Bishops stated: “if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s…While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the world-wide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good.”
The Catholic Church has stated, “Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccine produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.”
It’s that last paragraph that I really want to focus on. The reason is that the very same people who use religion to justify their refusal to use vaccines supposedly hopelessly morally contaminated by any contact whatsoever with abortion, no matter how distant in the past or through many doublings of cell lines isolated 60 years ago, tend to be the very same people who refuse to do the bare minimum to avoid “becoming vehicles for the transmission of” SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Although The Vault Project doesn’t have any explicitly antimask/antilockdown articles published (yet), given that they do have articles touting unproven and almost certainly ineffective “cures” for COVID-19 like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, it’s a safe bet that whoever is behind the website is also antimask.
Astroturfers gonna astroturf, and antivaxxers gonna abuse religious exemptions to vaccine mandates I guess. Also, I wonder if The Vault Project opposes any use of Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody cocktail, which was developed using—you guessed it!—HEK-293 cells and used by Donald Trump himself when he came down with COVID-19 last year.