When President Donald Trump came down with an apparently very serious coronavirus infection last week, his medical team responded with an experimental drug cocktail that the president has since touted as nothing short of miraculous. Trump likes one of these drugs so much that he released a little hype video on Wednesday, calling the treatment a coronavirus “cure.” (This is only according to Trump — one doctor told the New York Times that there is “one million percent no” chance that it could have “cured” him in 24 hours, as he has claimed.)
In a rambling five-minute video posted to Twitter on Wednesday, a conspicuously bronzed Trump said his COVID infection was a “gift from God” because it introduced him to the drug Regeneron. It sure sounds like no one told him that this particular treatment is developed using fetal tissue, a crucial research avenue Trump’s administration has harshly condemned, and tried to restrict as part of its war on abortion rights.
According to the New York Times, Regeneron is made by cultivating monoclonal antibodies from a cell line called 293T, which stem from the kidney tissue of a fetus aborted in the 1970s. (The 293T cells are used to test “the antibodies’ ability to neutralize the virus,” per a company rep.)
The Times notes that both Moderna and AstraZeneca are using 293T cells in producing their coronavirus vaccines. The cells are reportedly also involved in testing the antiviral Remdesivir, another of the drugs seemingly enabling the president to record blustery PSAs mere days after being infected.
The Trump administration first cracked down on “new acquisition of fetal tissue from elective abortions” in summer 2019, limiting the federal funds available to critical National Institutes of Health–partnered research projects — the University of California San Francisco’s work on an HIV cure, for example. According to a great many of the country’s leading research institutions and medical bodies, fetal cells have clear advantages over adult cells, namely their high replication speed and ability to become any type of cell in the body. They have been used for medical research since the 1930s, and are responsible for such significant advances as the polio vaccine.
Use of fetal tissue is subject to a stringent code of ethics that, among other things, bars physicians and scientists from financially incentivizing abortion to advance their work. Despite the facts, the claim that “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts” for profit remains a favorite refrain of anti-choice extremists on the religious right. That ideology appears to be a motivating factor behind the Trump administration’s decision to establish a fetal-tissue ethics review advisory board in June of last year, one predictably stacked with abortion opponents. The Department of Health and Human Services explained in a statement that “promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” per the Times.
Given that the cell line on which Regeneron’s antibody therapy relies dates back to the 1970s, its research efforts wouldn’t run afoul of NIH funding guidelines. It would, however, fly in the face of anti-abortion zealots, who decry fetal-tissue research on the grounds that it “violate[s] the bodies of aborted babies by commodifying them for use in medical research.”
Still, as one member of the ethics advisory board — Lawrence Goldstein, a senior faculty member at the University of California at San Diego, and a scientist who has used fetal tissue for research — told the Washington Post, “a lot of the opponents have looked the other way” on Regeneron. Goldstein (correctly) labeled this selective blindness “blatant hypocrisy,” but what else could we conceivably expect?