Trump's COVID drug was developed using aborted fetal tissue

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The antibody cocktail that President Trump received for his COVID-19 infection and touted on Wednesday evening as a “cure” for the deadly virus was developed using cells derived from aborted fetal tissue, a practice the White House and anti-abortion rights groups oppose.

Last week, Mr. Trump received Regeneron Pharmaceuticals’ cocktail of monoclonal antibodies, an experimental therapeutic for coronavirus that is still undergoing testing and is not FDA approved. In a nearly five-minute video posted to Twitter on Wednesday, the president lauded its effects, calling it “the key.”

“I think this was a blessing from God that I caught [the virus], I think it was a blessing in disguise,” Mr. Trump said in the video. “I caught it, I heard about this drug, I said, ‘Let me take it’ … and it was incredible the way it worked.”

But the way in which the antibody cocktail was developed is at odds with the Trump administration’s position on stem cell research. The drug’s potency was tested in a lab using HEK 293T cells, a cell line originally derived from the kidney tissue of a fetus aborted in the Netherlands in the 1970s, said a spokesperson for Regeneron in an email to CBS News on Thursday. The cells “were used in testing the antibody candidates’ ability to neutralize the virus” and helped researchers “determine the ‘best’ two antibodies, which now make up the REGN-COV2 cocktail,” the spokesperson said.  

There is no fetal tissue present in the final product.

Remdesivir, an antiviral drug Mr. Trump received, also was tested using the HEK 293T cells.

Last year, the Trump administration said it would no longer support long-standing funding for medical research by government scientists using human fetal tissue, a move that countered advice from physicians and researchers. The decision was seen as a major victory for anti-abortion rights groups.

Because the fetal cells used in developing Regeneron’s antibody cocktail were originally derived from an abortion prior to the funding ban, a White House official told CBS News on Thursday that the therapeutic wasn’t in violation of the administration’s new policy.

“The Administration’s policy on the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions in research specifically excluded ‘already-established (as of June 5, 2019) human fetal cell lines,” the official said. “Thus, a product made using extant cell lines that existed before June 5, 2019 would not implicate the Administration’s policy.”

Anti-abortion groups, which generally oppose the use of fetal tissue in pharmaceutical research, did not raise issue with the therapeutics used and promoted by the president.

“The president was not given any medicines to treat COVID-19 that involved the destruction of human life,” wrote David Prentice, Ph.D., and Tara Sander Lee, Ph.D., of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the anti-abortion rights political group the Susan B. Anthony List, in a statement emailed to CBS News Wednesday afternoon. “No human embryonic stem cells or human fetal tissue were used to produce the treatments President Trump received – period.”

The researchers did not address the fact that fetal cells were used for testing earlier in the drug’s development process. A spokesperson for the SBA List did not respond to follow up questions.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Lila Rose, the co-founder and president of Live Action, an anti-abortion group, rejected that the therapeutic was developed using fetal tissue, writing in an email to CBS News, “To our knowledge, Regeneron was not created using aborted baby tissue.”

Rose acknowledged that other Regeneron products use fetal tissue in their development, which her group “absolutely condemn[s].” Rose did not respond to follow up questions. 

Regeneron applied to the Food and Drug Administration for an Emergency Use Authorization on Wednesday night, which would allow patients access to the drug more quickly than the standard approval process. The Phase 3 clinical trial is still underway, but the company says early results show the treatment reduces viral load and helps improve symptoms in non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

“For me, I walked in, I didn’t feel good. A short 24 hours later I was feeling great,” Mr. Trump said in the video posted to Twitter on Wednesday evening. “And that’s what I want for everybody.”

Despite the president’s enthusiasm, medical experts say none of the current treatments amount to a cure for COVID-19, which has killed more than 212,000 Americans to date.

“It’s absolutely irresponsible for the president to be calling it a cure,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, told CBSN. “We can’t tell about a drug’s efficacy based on its performance in one patient.”

Arden Farhi contributed to this report

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