There are no human cells in the AstraZeneca vaccine, and it won’t give you a chimpanzee virus

25 February 2021
What was claimed

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine contains viruses from chimpanzees.

Our verdict

The vaccine uses a modified virus which was originally created from a virus found in chimpanzees.

What was claimed

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine contains human foetal cells.

Our verdict

There is a process involved in producing the vaccine which uses clones of cells which were originally derived from an aborted human foetus. But as the cells are clones, they are not actually from a foetus themselves.

It has been claimed on Facebook that the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine contains viruses from chimpanzees and human foetal cells. The post suggests this means the vaccine contains animal products.

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Does the vaccine contain human foetal cells?

We have fact checked this claim before. As told to us by the Oxford/Astrazeneca research teams, and described here, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine uses cells from the HEK 293 TREX cell line in a stage in the production of the vaccine. These cells help to grow a modified type of virus (an adenovirus) which later becomes the vector to carry the genetic instructions to make the coronavirus spike protein. This exposure to the spike protein generates an immune response to protect the vaccine recipient from later infection. 

The original cells used for the HEK cell line came from cells taken from the kidney of an aborted foetus in the 1970s. The cells have then been cloned and used for lots of different scientific studies. Whilst the original cells used to create the HEK cell line were derived from a human foetus, none of the cells being used today were themselves taken directly from a foetus. 

In addition, the Vaccine Knowledge Project also describes that viruses which are used for vaccines are “purified several times to remove the cell culture material. This makes it unlikely that any human material remains in the final vaccine”.

Does the vaccine contain chimpanzee virus?

The Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine uses ChAdOx1, which is an altered version of a strain of a virus which normally affects chimpanzees

This is used because it generates a strong immune response, and humans are less likely to have pre-existing antibodies against it than if a strain of virus which normally affects humans was used. 

This modified virus is used as a vector to carry the genetic information encoding the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein (a protein on the spike of the virus which causes Covid-19). When the vaccine enters cells in the body, the genetic code is used to produce the spike protein. This allows the immune system to develop antibodies to protect from Covid-19 infection in the future. The modified virus has been genetically modified so that it cannot grow or cause infection in humans.

Does the vaccine contain animal products?

The Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine does not contain any human or animal products. 

The Vegetarian Society reiterates this, but reminds people that lab-grown human cells (HEK 293), and animals (chimpanzees) were used “during the development stage”, and that the vaccine has been tested on animals “which is a regulatory requirement of any vaccine released to the public in the UK”.

Correction 19 April 2021

We have updated this article to more clearly describe the role of the viral vector in carrying the genetic instructions for making the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein rather than the spike protein itself.

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