The COVID-19 treatment President Donald Trump has referred to as a miracle was developed using cells derived from an aborted fetus — a process he has severely curtailed in government-funded medical research to woo the evangelical vote.
Among the treatments Trump received was Regeneron Pharmaceuticals’ experimental cocktail of monoclonal antibodies, which is not yet approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In a video Wednesday, Trump called the Regeneron treatment “the key” to his bounce back from a COVID-19 infection. He called it “like unbelievable.”
“I think this was a blessing from God that I caught [COVID-19]. I think it was a blessing in disguise,” Trump said in the video. “I caught it, I heard about this drug, I said, ‘Let me take it’ … and it was incredible the way it worked.”
Yet the development of the drug is directly at odds with Trump’s stance against using fetal tissue cells in medical research. That stance has been a key to his support from the evangelical community, which opposes abortion.
A second antiviral drug Trump was given, Remdesivir, was also developed using cells originally derived from the tissue of an aborted fetus. In addition, three coronavirus vaccines under development are also using cell lines developed from fetal tissue in research, according to The New York Times. All have received federal funding.
The Regeneron treatment’s efficacy was tested in a lab using HEK 293T cells. That cell line was originally derived from the kidney tissue of a fetus aborted in the Netherlands in the 1970s, according to the company.
Andrew Harnik/ASSOCIATED PRESS Regeneron CEO Dr. Leonard Schleifer attends a March 2 meeting with President Donald Trump, members of the Coronavirus Task Force and pharmaceutical executives at the White House.
The cells were used to test “candidates’ ability to neutralize the virus” and helped researchers to “determine the best two antibodies,” which make up the REGN-COV2 cocktail, a spokesperson told CBS News.
The antiviral drug Remdesivir, also given to Trump, used the same HEK293T cells in its research to develop a treatment for COVID-19.
Regeneron’s link to fetal tissue was first reported in the MIT Technology Review. To create the therapeutic miracles Trump extols, apparently “God employs cell lines derived from human fetal tissue,” the publication noted.
The Trump administration last year suspended federal funding for most new scientific research projects involving fetal tissue from abortions, despite pleas from scientists. Fetal tissue has been instrumental in developing treatments or cures for polio, cystic fibrosis and hemophilia, among many other conditions.
“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement at the time.
A Trump administration spokesperson told CBS News that use of the fetal tissue was acceptable in the president’s case because the research predated Trump’s policy.
“A product made using extant cell lines that existed before June 5, 2019, would not implicate the administration’s policy,” the spokesperson said.
Dr. Deepak Srivastava, a pediatric cardiologist who led the International Society for Stem Cell Research until recently, criticized the administration’s hypocritical position. “If they oppose this research, they should be willing to not take a drug that was developed using that,” he told the Times. “It’s not ethically sound to say, ‘Just because they’re made a long time ago, it’s okay if it’s going to save my life,’”
Lawrence Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who has used fetal tissue in his research, told the Times of Trump: “Hypocrisy has never bothered the man, as near as I can tell.”
Anti-abortion groups have been largely mum on Trump praising his ability to benefit from cutting-edge treatment despite its links to fetal tissue.
The anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute issued a statement to CBS pointing out that there was no actual tissue in the treatments Trump received and that he was not given any medicines that directly “involved the destruction of human life.” That’s also true of medical research that Trump has blocked.
The institute did not address the issue of using cells derived from the tissue of an aborted fetus to test the treatment used on Trump, CBS pointed out.
Trump has called Regereron a “cure” for COVID-19, which has also come under heavy fire.
“It’s absolutely irresponsible for the president to be calling it a cure,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, told CBSN. “We can’t tell about a drug’s efficacy based on its performance in one patient.”
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