CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait –– A U.S. Army Central Command microbiologist briefed the development history of the three major COVID-19 vaccines to a contingent of U.S. Army chaplains and their enlisted Army religious affairs specialists at a meeting held March 15 at the Area Support Group–Kuwait chaplains office.
"I wanted to make myself available, so they had the facts surrounding the moral question," said Maj. Nathan Fisher, a professional microbiologist and U.S. Army Reservist currently deployed with the "Desert Medics" of the 3rd Medical Command (Deployment Support).
Fisher spent several years on active-duty working in the biodefense community after earning his doctorate from the University of Michigan in the study of anthrax.
Fisher added that he has spoken to roughly 500 Soldiers since beginning the briefings three weeks ago and this was his 12th time speaking about the development history of the three COVID-19 vaccines.
Army Reserve Lt. Col. David Beetham, command chaplain for the 310th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), said he welcomed the opportunity to attend the briefing.
"It's good looking at some of the ethical challenges that are being asked of us," Beetham said. "We need to know about stem cells and such."
How do the COVID-19 vaccines fight the pandemic?
Fisher said that all three of the COVID-19 vaccines that the Food and Drug Administration granted an Emergency Use Authorization from Moderna, Pfizer and Janssen Biotech have the same three attributes.
“The FDA grants EUAs if there is a pressing medical need for the vaccine and there are trials that demonstrate that the vaccine is safe,” he explained. The obstacle to full approval is that the FDA wants to see demographic data, as well as data related to how the vaccine affects people with other diseases.
"The vaccines do three things," Fisher said. “They make it less likely that a person that's vaccinated becomes sick. If the person does become sick, they make it less likely that they'll become severely sick and if you do get sick, they make it less likely that you will spread the virus."
Fisher, who completes his 20th year of military service at the end of March, said it cannot by overlooked that all three vaccines are 100 percent effective against severe disease.
"All three had very good, solid clinical trials," he said. "The data suggests that all three are effective and safe."
The developmental history of the three COVID-19 vaccines
Fisher said the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were produced synthetically, but were tested using stem cells from the HEK-293 cell line. The cells were originally obtained from the healthy female fetus aborted in 1973. The nomenclature, HEK-293, stands for Human Embryonic Kidney cells.
The Janssen Biotech vaccine is different because it is produced using stem cells from the PER.C6 cell line, he said. The PER.C6 cell line is derived from retinal cells from a fetus aborted in 1973.
"In the cell culture, in the laboratory, they are not growing an eyeball or a retina," he said. "It's called a monolayer. It's a flat layer of cells and usually they grow just one-cell thick."
Unlike regular human cells, which have a limited ability to split, embryonic cells have the ability to split and reproduce seemingly forever, Fisher explained.
For this reason, embryonic cells can be grown in the laboratory for as long as the cells are needed to develop the three COVID-19 vaccines, he said.
"The actions of the pharmaceutical companies in 2020 were separated by time and distance from [those] original abortions,” Fisher said. "There are no new abortions being performed for these or any other vaccine research."
mRNA vaccines v. protein vaccines
Fisher said both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use messenger RNA molecules, which alert the body's T-cells. T-cells are white blood cells that attack and destroy dangerous cells.
"The mRNA strategy elicits what is primarily a T-cell response," he said. "T-cells are part of your immune system and one of the things they do is look for virally-infected cells."
“Using mRNA has the effect of telling the T-cells what to look for,” he added. "It makes for a more accurate immune response using mRNA."
The Janssen Biotech vaccine uses an inert COVID-19 protein, which is the traditional approach in which the foreign protein triggers the creation of antibodies to overwhelm the virus.
Janssen Biotech vaccine has advantages
Fisher said the Janssen Biotech vaccine's main advantage over the other two is that while the other two must be transported in a frozen state, the Janssen vaccine just has to be refrigerated.
"We can move refrigerated stuff around theater all day long--and you only need one shot," he said. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two shots, which also means having to keep track of who got their first and second shots.
Another advantage is that the Janssen vaccine was developed later than the other two vaccines, so it was tested against more recent strains of COVID-19, such as the strains from South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Chaplains glad they came to the briefing.
"It gives us a really good picture and understanding that we can pass on to our folks, who are concerned with the ethical reasons for taking or not taking the vaccine," Beetham said.
The Canadian-born chaplain said Soldiers are asking about vaccines. "The use of stem cells is the one that I have run into."
Army Lt. Col. David Beavers, Area Support Group-Kuwait command chaplain, said he was happy to host the briefing.
"I really appreciate how forthright and truthful this whole process has been on our medical side of the house," he said. "They are more than willing to share information, address questions and concerns and to proactively lean forward to address issues and concerns to help the well-being of all Soldiers and authorized personnel."
Beavers said Fisher reached out to him to see if there was any interest in a brief, he told the microbiologist there was. "Knowledge is power and it's good to get good knowledge."