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Trump treatment based on fetal tissue research

October 9, 2020

US President Donald Trump has been treated with an anti-COVID-19 drug developed with cells derived from fetal tissue. He called it a God-given miracle cure, but what will his anti-abortion supporters think?

US President Donald Trump removes his mask after returning to the White House following treatment for COVID-19
Image: Erin Scott/Reuters

After falling ill from a coronavirus infection, US President Donald Trump received REGN-COV2, an experimental-antibody drug. The treatment proved surprisingly effective, with the US leader returning to his office within a matter of days. The president has since praised the drugs as "miracles coming down from God."

The antibody-drug was developed — with or without divine assistance — by the US biotech company Regeneron, which has now asked the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to grant emergency use approval for REGN-COV2.

REGN-COV2 comprises two monoclonal antibodies: REGN10933 and REGN10987. REGN-COV2 is designed to provide a passive immunization by using synthetic neutralizing antibodies. The drug was developed using a cell line derived from fetal tissue.

Read more: Evangelicals: Donald Trump's anti-abortion base


Trumpian hypocrisy

Given the fierce resistance of the Trump administration to research involving fetal tissue, it seems extremely hypocritical that the US leader, who has widespread support from anti-abortion campaigners, has lauded REGN-COV2 as a heavenly gift.

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Just last year, Trump cut federal funding for national research efforts into HIV and cancer treatments based on fetal tissue. A special commission was established within the US Health Department — staffed with many anti-abortion activists — to monitor and block unfavorable research projects. So far, it has already rejected 13 of 14 research proposals.

In January, Trump spoke at the 47th March for Life, a Washington anti-abortion rally. There, he told activists "unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House" and that "every child is a precious and sacred gift from God."

Trump speaking at March for Life on January 24, 2020
Trump's appearance at the March for Life aimed to bolster his support among anti-abortionistsImage: Yuri Gripas/CNP/MediaPunch/picture alliance

Fetal tissue essential for drug research

REGN-COV2 is not manufactured in human cells, but in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. The effectiveness of the antibodies it contains, however, was tested on cells derived from kidney tissue taken from an abortion carried out in the Netherlands in the 1970s.

This cell line, known as 293T, has been used in various research labs around the world. REGN-COV2 made use of these cells to produce so-called virus pseudoparticles: virus-like structures that contain the "spike" protein of the deadly coronavirus. Only in this way was it possible to ascertain how effective the antibodies were against the virus.

Read more: Opinion: Trump's tactics are working 

A question of semantics?

The heated debate surrounding REGN-COV2 has once again put the spotlight on an important area of medical research that often uses cells originally derived from aborted fetuses, including during the development of vaccines.

Regeneron has not denied using 293T, yet argues that the cells should not be considered "human" tissue as they were grown in a lab. "It's how you want to parse it," says Regeneron spokeswoman Alexandra Bowie. "But the 293T cell lines available today are not considered fetal tissue, and we did not otherwise use fetal tissue."

This article was translated from German by Benjamin Restle.