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House Democrats call on Trump administration to lift restrictions on fetal tissue for coronavirus research

House Democrats call on Trump administration to lift restrictions on fetal tissue for coronavirus research
© Greg Nash

More than a dozen House Democrats on Monday called on the Trump administration to lift restrictions on research that uses human fetal tissue to allow for studies on potential treatment for COVID-19.

The lawmakers argued in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that such studies could lead to developing coronavirus treatments more quickly. Public health officials have estimated that a vaccine will not be available for at least another 12 to 18 months.

"Because of your restrictions, NIH is unable to utilize human fetal tissue to develop animal models of COVID-19 that can test potential vaccines and treatments to decelerate or even end this global health crisis. This inaction may ultimately put Americans further at risk of disease or death from COVID-19," the Democrats, led by Reps. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanBickering Democrats return with divisions Lobbying world OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push expansion of offshore wind, block offshore drilling with ocean energy bill | Poll: Two-thirds of voters support Biden climate plan | Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes MORE (Calif.), Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyOvernight Health Care: CDC panel recommends who gets vaccine first | McConnell offering new relief bill | Hahn downplays White House meeting on vaccines Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight Pelosi, Mnuchin continue COVID-19 talks amid dwindling odds for deal MORE (Ill.) and Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteBipartisan lawmakers call for expedited diabetes research The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Dems push McConnell on COVID-19 relief; Grassley contracts COVID-19 Overnight Health Care: Schumer, Pelosi want Heroes Act as 'starting point' in new COVID-19 relief talks | Labs warn of possible delays in test results amid surge in demand | Federal government partners with pharmacies for coronavirus vaccine distribution MORE (Colo.), wrote.

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"Instead of exploring every possible option for a COVID-19 therapeutic, U.S. scientists are now urging their international counterparts to rush to conduct this research while their hands remain tied," they wrote, along with 10 other fellow House Democrats.

The Department of Health and Human Services last year moved to discontinue research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that used aborted fetal tissue. The policy allowed existing projects funded by NIH grants at outside entities like universities to continue until their funding expired, but said those entities would have to go through an ethics advisory board for future approval.

At least one scientist at an NIH laboratory has been unable to pursue research for a potential coronavirus treatment due to the ban on fetal tissue, according to The Washington Post. A Montana facility has been prevented from conducting experiments using mice that can be transplanted with human fetal tissue that develops into lungs, which could then be infected with coronaviruses. Mice are ordinarily not prone to contracting such viruses. 

Fetal tissue is donated by women who undergo abortions. Scientists say that the fetal tissue has been critical in decades of research that has led to developments like the polio vaccine. 

But abortion opponents argue that using the tissue is unethical and have long lobbied for preventing taxpayer funds to go toward research that uses the material.  

The Department of Health and Human Services said in its announcement last year about the new policy that "promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE’s administration."