Anti-vaccination supporters are spreading misinformation on social media claiming that the pharmaceutical and medical industries are killing hundreds of babies to extract cells in order to create the HEK 293 cell line used in medicine.

Dead children are not being used to develop vaccines. The HEK 293, the Human Embryonic Kidney (HEK) 293 cell line is commonly used for BioPharma, basic medical research, therapeutic solutions and vaccinations. Generated in 1973, the cell line is derived from human embryonic kidney cells and is popular, in part because of their reliable growth in culture and for their propensity for transfection. 293 does not refer to the number of fetuses killed, but to the number of the successful clones of the source cell.

The Canadian-American website LifeSiteNews was the primary source of this anti-vaccine misinformation. Fact-checking organizations have repeatedly caught this media deliberately spreading false information. According to a study by the Media Bias organization, LifeSiteNews positions itself as supporting Christian values, but in fact the site is radically conservative, arguing against women’s rights to abortion, speaking out against the LGBT community and same-sex marriage, and claiming collusion between the media and politicians. During the outbreak of COVID-19, the site released several stories claiming the coronavirus pandemic was a fake.

The LifeSiteNews story is actually a podcast with one Pamela Acker, a biologist and alleged vaccine expert. While we were unable to fact check Acker’s scientific regalia, we did learn that she is an employee of the Catholic Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation  which in its mission statement says it seeks to “educate the public in the truth of creation as revealed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and as confirmed by the findings of modern science…. And show the superiority of special creation over all forms of molecules-to-man evolution.” The Center rejects the scientific basis for the theory of evolution and opposes certain statements by Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis regarding evolution.

In collaboration with like-minded thinkers, Pamela Ecker has published a number of articles on the Kolbe Center web site expounding on the fallacies of evolution. She has also published an anti-vaccination book, which catapulted her into becoming a star of the anti-immunization movement and led to her misinformation theories about the HEK-293 cell line, which she claims were extracted from aborted babies.

The HEK-293 cell lines currently used are artificial clones of the original cell isolated in 1973 – they are frozen in liquid nitrogen and have been stored in this form for decades. From time to time they are thawed, planted in a nutrient medium and infected with new viruses, against which a vaccine is being developed. The number “293” in the name of the cell line does not mean “the number of children killed”, but the number of the successful clonings of the original cell.

The claim that vaccines are developed from cells of killed babies is a particularly outrageous and incendiary piece of disinformation. Vaccines do not contain clones of embryonic cells, but rather traces of human DNA fragments in extremely low amounts, perhaps one billionth of a gram, such as can be found in other things that surround us, foods such as potatoes or apples.

Arguments about the “unethical” use of vaccines developed through the use of cell lines by believers have long been outdated. The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life stated in 2005 and reaffirmed in 2017 that in the absence of alternatives, Catholics can in good conscience receive vaccines developed from cloned human embryonic cell lines. In 2020, the Vatican once again called the use of vaccines “morally acceptable” for religious people.