Did an aborted fetus save Trump's life? How an elective abortion in 1970s gave rise to Regeneron Covid-19 drug

The antibody cocktail that the president has said cured him of coronavirus was developed using a cell line originally derived from a fetus aborted decades ago


                            Did an aborted fetus save Trump's life? How an elective abortion in 1970s gave rise to Regeneron Covid-19 drug
(Getty Images)

The experimental Covid-19 treatment that was given to President Donald Trump, who subsequently referred to it as a cure, was developed using human cells that were originally derived from a fetus aborted decades ago, a practice that the Trump administration has denounced and tried to restrict. After testing positive for the novel coronavirus, Trump received a dose of an experimental Covid-19 treatment being developed by Regeneron. He was given “a single 8-gram dose of Regeneron’s polyclonal antibody cocktail” as a precautionary measure. This antibody cocktail called REGN-COV2 was tested on cells from the HEK293T cell line, a line of cells that scientists have used in laboratories for decades. The cells were originally derived from the kidney tissue of a fetus after an elective abortion was performed in the Netherlands in the 1970s. 

Since then, the HEK293T line of cells has been ‘immortalized,’ which implies that they divide in the lab, and have undergone other genetic changes and additions. According to Regeneron, 293Ts were used in testing the antibodies’ ability to neutralize the virus, but they were not used in any other way, and fetal tissue was not used in the research. 

“We did use the HEK293T cell line to test our antibodies’ ability to neutralize the Sars-Cov-2 virus (which causes Covid-19). HEK293T wasn’t used in any other way, and fetal tissue was not used in this research. We did not use human stem cells or human embryonic stem cells in the development of REGN-COV2,” said Regeneron, according to the Financial Times. 

Alexandra Bowie, a Regeneron spokesperson also told MIT Technology Review: “It’s how you want to parse it. But the 293T cell lines available today are not considered fetal tissue, and we did not otherwise use fetal tissue.” 

There is no cure for Covid-19, and Regeneron’s drug has not been approved yet. However, Trump has touted the treatment as a ‘cure’ for coronavirus. In a video, the president said that he has authorized it for emergency use, but the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not decided whether to okay it for emergency use.



 

According to MIT Technology Review, Regeneron and many other labs employ 293T cells to manufacture virus ‘pseudo particles,’ which are virus-like structures that contain the spike protein of coronavirus. It needs those to test how well different antibodies will neutralize the virus. Regeneron’s experimental treatment would have been selected using exactly such tests, but because the 293T cells were acquired so long ago, and have lived so long in the laboratory, they are no longer thought of as involving abortion politics, says the article. 

According to Regeneron, 293Ts were used in testing the antibodies’ ability to neutralize the virus, but they were not used in any other way, and fetal tissue was not used in the research. (Getty Images)

For decades, fetal tissue from abortions has been crucial to scientific research into treatments for multiple conditions such as birth defects, Ebola, and cancer. Regeneron has also worked with the US government to develop monoclonal antibody therapies for years. The company’s position statement on stem cell research states: “As is the case with many other science-focused biotechnology companies, Regeneron uses a wide variety of research tools and technologies to help discover and develop new therapeutics. Stem cells are one such tool. The stem cells most commonly used at Regeneron are mouse embryonic stem cells and human blood stem cells. Currently, there are limited research efforts employing human-induced pluripotent stem cell lines derived from adult human cells and human embryonic stem cells that are approved for research use by the National Institutes of Health and created solely through in vitro fertilization.” It adds, “Research using such stem cells allows Regeneron to model complex diseases, test new drug candidates and can help unlock new scientific insights that ultimately could lead to the discovery of new treatments for people with serious diseases.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has taken an increasingly firm stand against medical research using fetal tissue from abortions. “For example, when it moved in 2019 to curtail the ability of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund such research, supporters hailed a “major pro-life victory” and thanked Trump personally for taking decisive action against what they called the “outrageous and disgusting” practice of “experimentation using baby body parts”,” says MIT Technology Review. 

The federal government has tried to block or restrict research that requires tissue from recently performed abortions. This year, an ethics board created by the Department of Health and Human Services to review scientific proposals at the NIH. Grant renewals and new projects using fetal tissue are now considered by the Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board, which rejected 13 of the 14 proposals it reviewed in August. It approved one where the tissue had already been acquired. “The rejections centered on research seeking fresh supplies of abortion tissue, rather than ongoing research involving older, well-established cell lines in use for many years, like the type Regeneron employed. However, one reason some scientists want to study abortion tissue is so they can create new and valuable cell lines,” the article emphasizes. 

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