Pentagon OK's COVID-19 Vaccine that May Ease Some Religious Objections

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COVID-19 vaccine at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station.
Tech. Sgt. Joseph Anthony fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania, Jan. 28, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Joshua J. Seybert)

The Pentagon said Monday it will now offer a new COVID-19 vaccine to the rank and file that claims not to have used fetal tissue or cells in development – a move that could help settle resistance among thousands of troops who have requested exemptions from the jab on religious and moral grounds.

Service members can request the Novavax vaccine – a two-dose series that, unlike its mRNA predecessors, is a protein-based vaccination with a lineage that has been tested for decades, according to a DoD press release. The Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which have been widely available, reportedly used fetal cell lines derived from decades-old fetal tissue in the vaccines’ testing.

While none of the vaccines contain any tissue – fetal or otherwise – according to the Centers for Disease Control, Novavax says that it did not use fetal tissue or fetal cell lines in its development, manufacturing or testing at all.

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"No human fetal-derived cell lines or tissue, including HEK293 cells, are used in the development, manufacture or production of the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine candidate, NVX-CoV2373," a spokesperson for Novavax told Military.com in an email.

The DoD did not explicitly state that the addition of the new vaccine is meant to quell religious concerns for service members who may oppose the vaccine’s association with fetal cells, but officials have hinted it could be a reason for the change.

“Novavax may accommodate those with sincerely held beliefs who felt limited in their options with the previous vaccine offering,” Maj. Gen. Sharon Bannister, medical operations director for Air Force Surgeon General, said in a press release last month.

The Army got ahead of the Pentagon announcement, saying on Friday that the vaccine would be available to soldiers.

“Soldiers have the option and can consult [with] their healthcare providers on the medical aspects, and they have the option to consult [with] their chaplains on the religious aspect,” said Lt. Col. William Martin, chaplain and religious accommodations and moral ethics officer at the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains in an Army press release last week.

“This is a religious matter affecting a medical reality,” he said. “It’s really a team advisement here in order to give that soldier the best information so that, in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs, they can make the best decision.”

After the Food and Drug Administration approved the Novavax vaccine as part of the agency’s emergency use policy, the Department of Defense followed suit, according to Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Pentagon spokesperson.

“We now have a range of COVID-19 vaccines available at our military medical treatment facilities, and they all provide strong protection against hospitalization, severe illness and death," she told Military.com over email.

The widespread military authorization has been in the works for months, at least. The Associated Press reported in June that roughly 175 service members had received the Novavax vaccine. It was previously approved in Europe.

COVID-19 vaccine prepared at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Holweger, 86th Medical Group non-commissioned officer in charge of the Immunizations Clinic, prepares a vaccine at Ramstein Air Base Germany, Aug. 18, 2022 (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Thomas Karol)

According to Reuters in 2021, Pfizer and Moderna used fetal cell lines in testing, with the J&J vaccine using “the retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985 in its production and manufacturing stages.” The cells from the original tissue were then grown in a laboratory creating “fetal cell lines” that are decades removed from the original tissue.

The fetal material is not present in any of the COVID-19 vaccines, according to the CDC.

Last year, Military.com reported that a Marine was discharged from the service for refusing to wear a mask or receive the vaccine because it conflicted with her religious beliefs.

"It's against my religion because it's associated with aborted fetal tissue, I'm Catholic,” Cpl. Whitney McHaffie told Military.com in August 2021. "I'm not against vaccines, for me it's about religious freedom, choice and health concerns."

Before her discharge, the Vatican said that vaccines which used aborted fetal tissue in testing were morally permissible “when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available.”

But the Catholic Church's Archdiocese for the Military Services said in October service members should have the right to refuse the military's COVID-19 vaccination requirement on conscientious grounds.

Over 6,000 service members have been separated for COVID-19 vaccine refusals, according to the most recent data provided by five of the six services. The Coast Guard did not respond to Military.com’s request for separation numbers by the time of publication.

While thousands of religious exemptions to the vaccine have been requested, the total approved across the services is less than 100.

The military branches are embroiled in several legal battles, mostly from National Guard troops, involving religious exemptions that have stifled the Pentagon's efforts to fully vaccinate the force.

The COVID-19 vaccines, in general, have been subject to intense misinformation since their implementation, with social media abound with false rumors that the vaccines contain government-created tracking chips or can make the recipient magnetic.

Editor's Note: After publication a Coast Guard spokesperson provided numbers to Military.com detailing exemptions granted to those in the service. 12 have received religious exemptions, 8 medical exemptions, and 174 administrative exemptions.

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

Related: Marine Corporal Discharged over Refusal to Wear a Mask

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