Last Friday, as Trump developed worrisome symptoms of covid-19, the president received an emergency cocktail of anti-coronavirus antibodies made by Regeneron. These molecules are manufactured in cells from a hamster’s ovary, so-called “CHO” cells, according to the company—not in human cells.
But cells originally derived from a fetus were used in another way. According to Regeneron, laboratory tests used to assess the potency of its antibodies employed a standardized supply of cells called HEK 293T, whose origin was kidney tissue from an abortion in the Netherlands in the 1970s.
Since then, the 293T cells have been “immortalized,” meaning they keep dividing in the lab, somewhat like a cancer, and have undergone other genetic changes and additions.
According to Regeneron, it and many other labs employ 293T cells to manufacture virus “pseudoparticles,” which are virus-like structures that contain the “spike” protein of the deadly coronavirus. It needs those to test how well different antibodies will neutralize the virus.
The two antibodies Regeneron eventually put forward as an experimental treatment, which may have saved Trump’s life, would have been selected using exactly such tests. Because the 293T cells were acquired so long ago, and have lived so long in the laboratory, they are no longer thought of as involving abortion politics.