Deputy Chief Health Officer Nick Coatsworth addresses the archbishops’ vaccine concerns.

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By federal politics reporter Stephanie Borys


One of Australia’s most senior religious leaders says he would likely boycott the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Oxford University, on ethical grounds.

The Federal Government has signed an international deal that would provide all Australians free access to the UK vaccine, being worked on by Oxford scientists and pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca, if it is approved for use.

But Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies said there were ethical questions about the potential vaccine, because scientists have used cell lines from an electively aborted foetus.

“To use that tissue for science is reprehensible,” Dr Davies told AM.

His concerns are shared by Catholic and Greek Orthodox leaders, who have written a joint letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Dr Davies said he would “have to think very seriously” about whether he would get the COVID-19 vaccine if it came from Oxford University.

“It would depend upon the nature of the development of other vaccines,” he said.

“From what I’ve understood, there are so many places around the world on the hunt for this vaccine, which I’m certainly hopeful that there will be pressure on those countries to make it widely available.

“So I’m not putting Hobson’s choice [take it or leave it] at this stage.”

However, he made his position clear when pushed by AM on whether he would wait for a second vaccine if the first was from Oxford University.

“I probably would, but that would be a personal decision of mine and not a decision that I would bind anyone’s conscience with,” he said.

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, declined an interview but he told the Catholic Weekly newspaper that he didn’t believe it would be unethical to get the Oxford vaccine if it was the only option.

“But I am deeply troubled by it,” he said.

Transparency and options

For decades, scientists have used human cells that come from elective abortions to make vaccines such as rubella and chicken pox.

The information is publicly available and the Archbishop was questioned why he had not raised concerns about other inoculations.

“To be perfectly honest I didn’t know that until this week,” he said.

“If I had known previously about those vaccines which you speak, then I would have done so.”

Dr Davies said he and his counterparts at other churches wanted the Prime Minister to be more transparent about the Oxford University vaccine and to look for other options.

“For me, the right thing would be to make sure that if the vaccine becomes available first from Oxford that everyone knows its genesis and [that the Government] continue [s] to pursue other vaccine developments so that those vaccine developments which are not morally compromised could become more readily available for our population.”

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth backed the UK researchers.

“There are strong ethical regulations surrounding the use of any human cell, particularly fetal human cells,” Dr Coatsworth said.

Despite the aborted foetus being decades old, Dr Davies argued no life was worth more than another.

“I still want to protect the life of the unborn and I don’t want to take advantage of the involuntary death of an unborn child,” he said.

“Therefore, that for me is a higher virtue than my own personal vaccination.”

Government pushes ahead and medical networks back Oxford

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said Mr Morrison respected the views of religious communities and understands the issues being raised.

“The Government is investing in research and technology that we hope will produce a range of vaccines that will be suitable for as many Australians as possible,” the statement said.

“Many vaccines in development do not contain these cell lines, including the UQ vaccine candidate which the Government is already supporting with $5 million.”

Mr Morrison is yet to formally respond to the letter from religious leaders and a spokesperson for the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia said His Eminence Makarios Griniezakis would not talk before he had received a response.

A spokesman for Catholic Health Australia, which operates 75 hospitals and 550 residential and community aged care services, said it did not share the concerns outlined in the letter.

“The most pressing issue for Catholic health providers is whether any proven vaccine can be distributed fairly and equitably,” the statement said.

“We must ensure that the marginalised in society are not left to the back of the queue and that, whichever vaccine prevails, it reaches those most at risk.”

 

[External link to PDF letter]