WASHINGTON (AFP) – A COVID-19 vaccine that may soon win federal approval may provide a boost to the US military: a chance to get shots at some of the thousands of service members who have refused other coronavirus vaccines for religious reasons.
At least 175 active duty and reserve service personnel have already received the Novavax vaccineSome even travel abroad at their own expense to get it. The vaccine meets the requirements of the Ministry of Defense because it is approved by the World Health Organization for emergency use and is used in Europe and other regions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering granting it authorization for emergency use in the United States
The Novavax vaccine may be an acceptable option for some of the 27,000 service members who have sought religious exemptions from the mandatory vaccination. Military officials say many soldiers who refuse shots cite COVID-19 Remote connection of vaccines to abortion.
The lab-grown cell strains descended from fetuses aborted decades ago have been used in some of the early tests of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and to grow the viruses used to make the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Vaccines do not contain embryonic cells. Novavax, however, says that “no human embryo-derived cell lines or tissues” were used in the development, manufacture, or production of its vaccine.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made coronavirus vaccinations mandatory Last year, he said, shots were critical to maintaining military readiness and the health of the force. Military leaders have argued that troops have been required for decades to have up to 17 vaccines, especially for those deployed abroad.
One group involved in lawsuits targeting the military’s vaccine demand said it would likely see some opponents shooting Novavax as a viable option.
“I definitely think it’s appropriate for some, but certainly not for everyone,” said Mike Perry, director of military affairs at the First Liberty Institute. “There are some for whom abortion is really the ultimate issue, and once this problem is resolved for them spiritually, they are ready for it.”
Perry added, however, that for others, abortion is “just an occasional issue,” and they have broader opposition to vaccines as a whole. “The primitive way of looking at it is that they asked for God’s will, and they thought it would be wrong for them to get vaccinated,” Berry said. “In other words, they think God has told them no.”
Novavax may also appeal to people who are uncomfortable with the new genetic technology used in Pfizer and Moderna’s alleged mRNA vaccines. They provide genetic instructions for the body to make copies of the coronavirus’ outer covering, the spike protein.
The Novavax vaccine is made with more common technology, such as the one used years ago to prevent hepatitis B and shingles. It trains the body to fight the coronavirus by delivering copies of the outer envelope that are grown in insect cells, which are then purified and packaged into virus-like nanoparticles into the immune system, according to Novavax’s chief research officer, Dr. Gregory Glenn.
While some religious groups oppose the shots, when COVID-19 vaccines first began rolling out the Vatican’s Office of Doctrine called the options “morally acceptable,” Pope Francis, who received Pfizer’s injections, encouraged the power of mass vaccination.
Berry said he didn’t know how many people would consider Novavax to be acceptable, but he guessed it might be a small percentage. First Liberty and law firm Schaerr Jaffe LLP represent several Navy sailors in one lawsuit, and nine pilots in another.
Military officials declined to publicly disclose the nature of service members’ religious exemption requests, but spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide some descriptions. They said that the most prevalent issue mentioned in the waiver requests is the distant association with embryonic cell lines, while others argue that their bodies are a temple that must remain pure. Officials said that others described reasons that appeared less faith-related.
Berry said his company carefully screens individuals in lawsuits, to ensure their objections are based on honest religious beliefs, not political or other dissent masquerading as religious views.
The military can’t administer the Novavax shot now, and won’t pay for anyone to travel abroad to get it. But tens of thousands of US troops are stationed in Europe, where Novavax is available.
Earlier this week, FDA advisors backed the Novavax vaccine. Next, the FDA must decide whether to authorize it. A final FDA decision is not expected immediately, as the agency finishes combing the data.
Across the army, more than 5,000 soldiers have been laid off for refusing to be vaccinated, according to the latest statistics provided by the services. Of those who requested religious exceptions, only slightly more than 100 were approved.
In the suit against the Navy, a federal judge in Texas agreed that the case could proceed as a class action and issued a preliminary injunction preventing the service from taking action against sailors who objected to the vaccine on religious grounds. Perry said the Department of Justice said it would appeal the ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Perry said that in the Air Force lawsuit, attorneys have requested that it also be a class action, and they are seeking a temporary restraining order that would prevent the Air Force from taking any adverse action. The court has not yet ruled.
Associated Press medical writer Laurent Niergaard contributed to this report.