New vaccine could be an option for troops with religious concerns

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A COVID-19 vaccine that may soon gain federal approval could give the U.S. military a boost: an opportunity to vaccinate thousands of service members who have refused other coronavirus vaccines for religious reasons.

At least 175 active duty and reserve service members have already received the Novavax vaccine, with some even traveling overseas at their own expense to obtain it. The vaccine meets Department of Defense requirements as it has emergency use approval from the World Health Organization and is used in Europe and other regions. The Food and Drug Administration is considering giving it emergency use authorization in the United States

The Novavax vaccine may be an acceptable option for some of the 27,000 service members who have requested religious exemptions from the mandatory vaccine. Military officials say many troops who refuse injections cite the remote link of some COVID-19 vaccines to abortions.

Cell lines grown in the lab from fetuses aborted decades ago have been used in some preliminary tests of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and to grow viruses used to make the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Vaccines do not contain fetal cells. Novavax, however, claims that “no cell lines or tissues derived from human fetuses” were used in the development, manufacturing or production of its vaccine.

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory last year, saying the shots were essential to maintaining military readiness and force health. Military leaders have argued that troops have for decades had to get as many as 17 vaccines, especially for those deploying overseas.

A group involved in lawsuits targeting the military’s vaccine needs said some downed adversaries may see Novavax as an acceptable option.

“I definitely think it’s for some, but definitely not for all,” said Mike Berry, director of military affairs at the First Liberty Institute. “There are some for whom abortion is really the ultimate problem, and once that problem is solved for them spiritually, they are ready.”

A vial of the Novavax phase 3 coronavirus vaccine is seen ready to use in a trial at St. George’s University Hospital in London, October 7, 2020.
(AP Photo/Alastair Grant, file)

Berry added, however, that for others abortion is “just a tangential issue” and they have a broader opposition to vaccines as a whole. “A rudimentary way of looking at it is that they asked God’s will, and they believe it would be wrong for them to get vaccinated,” Berry said. “In other words, they believe God told them no.”

Novavax may also appeal to people who aren’t comfortable with the new genetic technology used in so-called mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. They provide genetic instructions for the body to make copies of the coronavirus’s outer coating, the spike protein.

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The Novavax vaccine is made with more familiar technology, like those used for years to prevent hepatitis B and shingles. It trains the body to fight the coronavirus by delivering copies of the outer coating that are grown in insect cells, then purified and packaged into nanoparticles that look like a virus to the immune system, according to the head of the Novavax research, Dr. Gregory Glenn.

While some religious groups oppose injections, when COVID-19 vaccines were first rolled out, the Vatican’s doctrine office called the options “morally acceptable” and Pope Francis, who received injections from Pfizer, strongly encouraged widespread vaccination.

Pope Francis welcomes and blesses children assisted by the Vatican's Santa Marta Pediatric Dispensary at Paul VI Hall.

Pope Francis welcomes and blesses children assisted by the Vatican’s Santa Marta Pediatric Dispensary at Paul VI Hall.
(Stefano Costantino/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Berry said he didn’t know how many people would consider Novavax acceptable, but he surmised it might be a small percentage. The First Liberty Institute and the law firm Schaerr Jaffe LLP are representing a number of sailors in one lawsuit and nine airmen in another.

Military officials declined to publicly detail the nature of the service members’ religious exemption requests, but spoke on condition of anonymity to provide some descriptions. They said the most prevalent issue mentioned in waiver requests is the remote link to fetal cell lines, while others argue that their body is a temple that must be kept pure. Others, officials said, describe reasons that appear to have less to do with faith.

Berry said his firm carefully screens individuals for prosecution, to ensure their objections are based on sincere religious beliefs rather than political or other opposition masquerading as faith-based opinions.

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The military cannot administer the Novavax vaccine now and will not pay for anyone to travel overseas to obtain it. But tens of thousands of US forces are based in Europe, where Novavax is available.

Earlier this week, FDA advisers backed the Novavax vaccine. Then the FDA has to decide whether to allow it or not. A final decision from the FDA is not expected immediately as the agency finishes sifting through the data.

Across the military, more than 5,000 service members have been fired for refusing the vaccine, according to the latest statistics provided by the services. Of those who applied for religious exemptions, just over 100 were approved.

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In the lawsuit against the Navy, a Texas federal judge agreed the case could be pursued as a class action and issued a preliminary injunction barring the service from taking action against sailors who objected to the vaccine on religious grounds. . Berry said the Justice Department announced it would appeal the decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In the Air Force lawsuit, Berry said, attorneys have asked that it also be a class action and they are seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the Air Force from taking adverse action. The court has not yet ruled.

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