But the president’s repeated praise for the antibody cocktail he got when he was first hospitalized nearly a week ago has generated controversy given his clampdown on fetal tissue research at the behest of social conservatives crucial to his political base.
“It’s blatant hypocrisy,” said Lawrence Goldstein, a senior faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, who has used fetal tissue in his research.
“A lot of the opponents [of fetal tissue research] have looked the other way” when it comes to the cell line involved in both the Regeneron therapy and some of the coronavirus vaccines being developed, said Goldstein, who sits on a federal ethics advisory board created over the summer to review whether NIH should give federal grants or contracts toproposals deemed deserving on scientific grounds. The board recommended rejecting all but one of the 14 proposals.
Another advisory board member, David Prentice, vice president and research director of the antiabortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, said Trump’s use of the experimental cocktail does not raise ethical concerns. The reason, Prentice said, is because the fetal cell line was involved only in testing whether the antibody works in helping to defeat the virus, not in making the antibody itself.
“We would prefer they not use the controversial cell line even in the testing, because there are other alternatives,” Prentice said. “But that testing on the side doesn’t affect me in terms of the recipient of the drug.”
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said that under NIH guidelines, “a product made using extant cells lines that existed before June 5, 2019 would not implicate the administration’s policy on the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions.”
The controversy emerged after Trump appeared in a video released on Twitter Wednesday evening, standing in the sunlight outside the White House, praising the Regeneron therapy as what he mischaracterized as a cure for the virus. He said his diagnosis with the virus that has killed at least 211,000 people in the United States was a “blessing from God” because it allowed him to discover firsthand how the antibody cocktail left him feeling “great … like, perfect.”
On Wednesday night, Regeneron applied to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization to use the cocktail for some covid-19 patients. According to a company spokesman, 2,000 people have participated in a final-stage trial, receiving either the cocktail or a placebo. Apart from those participants, the company has granted fewer than 10 people, including the president, special “compassionate use” permission to use the therapy, said the spokeswoman, Alexandra Bowie.
The therapy is based on a mixture of two antibodies. One is developed with a mouse model that does not involve human tissue derived from abortions. The other, Bowie said, is tested for its effectiveness by creating a “pseudovirus” from a cell line known as HEK293T. That line originated from human fetal tissue in the Netherlands in the 1970s and was adapted at Stanford University in the 1980s.
A 2016 article published in the journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, exploring the history of use of human cell lines in biopharmaceutical manufacturing, noted that the same cell line, HEK293T, had led at that point to five therapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including to treat hemophilia and Type-2 diabetes.