Fetal Tissue Research Restrictions Hinder Response to COVID-19

By Lyly Luhachack, PhD, ASHG Policy & Advocacy Assistant

The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded a scientific call to action and researchers have responded in extraordinary ways. Collaborating across borders, disciplines and sectors, researchers pivoting to coronavirus research have generated and shared new knowledge and data with remarkable speed and openness. However, a barrier exists for scientists proposing to use human fetal tissue to investigate potential vaccines and therapies for the new coronavirus.

The Washington Post recently reported that NIH researchers are facing difficulties using a humanized mouse model for testing potential COVID-19 treatments because of a fetal tissue research policy. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a new policy for federally funded research using human fetal tissue acquired from elective abortions. Under the policy, no new NIH intramural research using human fetal tissue may be conducted. Extramural proposals will undergo additional review by an ethics advisory board.

The media reports on important research being stymied have prompted calls for Congress to take action. In March, ASHG joined other leading biomedical organizations, patient groups, and universities, urging President Trump to lift restrictions on research using fetal tissue. Subsequently, Reps. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) also introduced legislation, H.R. 6417, Protecting Cures Act of 2020, to remove those restrictions.  Most recently, just last week Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), sent a letter to HHS Secretary Azar calling for the lifting of the restrictions for COVID-19-related research.

ASHG recently issued a new Perspective stating its support for policies enabling fetal tissue research. We will continue to monitor the emerging debate in Congress and report on any further developments.


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