Jessica Scott-Reid is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and animal advocate
The basic model for testing vaccines is much the same as for any drug: conduct animal trials first, then, if deemed safe and possibly effective, human trials next. This long-standing method is widely accepted as scientifically efficient and ethically necessary. But in the race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, one American biotech company, Moderna, reportedly did without that apparently crucial preliminary step. On March 16, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, the first-ever injection of a possible COVID-19 vaccine was administered to a human volunteer, in a phase one trial funded by the National Institute of Health. In a time of such urgency, the strict prerequisite of animal testing can simply cease to exist.
Meanwhile, mass euthanasia may be the fate of lab animals currently involved in research not involving coronavirus or otherwise seen as non-essential, according to animal rights group PETA. This comes as the result of shuttered universities and scarce animal care staff. On March 18, one graduate researcher at the University of Toronto, reportedly tweeted (and since deleted): “Today, due to lab closures and #COVID-19, I have to cull around 100+ rats.” PETA subsequently sent a letter to U of T president Meric Gertler, demanding to know why the school conducts non-essential research upon animals in the first place.
The Canadian Animal Care Counsel, a non-governmental organization that oversees the treatment of animals in publicly funded research, confirmed via e-mail: “Because of the COVID-19 crisis some research institutions may have to make the difficult ethical decision to euthanize animals.”
And on April 2, The Globe and Mail reported that the export of test monkeys from China had been halted in an effort to prevent possible future outbreaks.
The various roles that lab animals have played throughout the COVID-19 pandemic highlight a growing need to re-evaluate current scientific research models and requirements.
If a possible vaccine can be rushed into human trials, if lab animals can be so easily and suddenly discarded, and the importation of animals for experimentation can increase the risk of virus spread, then the exclusive focus on first using animal models should be reconsidered.
Dr. Charu Chandrasekera, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods (CCAAM) at the University of Windsor, says this is especially true since more than 90 per cent of drugs tested and found to be safe and effective in animal models fail in human clinical trials.
“We are all counting down the days until we return to ‘normal.’ But should we?" asks Dr. Chandrasekera.
A long-time biomedical researcher, Dr. Chandrasekera acknowledges that animals have made “tremendous contributions to our understanding of fundamental biological processes, health and disease, and in medical advancement.” But she says there are tremendous differences between humans and other animals, and now is the time to take those differences seriously.
As such, the current system of scientific research and testing has become outdated and stuck in a culture ingrained in animal research. “The fundamental problem is that animals are the first choice, when they should be the last resort,” she says. “No single animal model can ever recapitulate the human disease condition, so you end up creating these animal models that mimic certain aspects of human disease, but they are not accurate representations of the disease. This is why we have had such big failures."
Dr. Chandrasekera says science is missing out on a lot, “because we are not focusing on the human model first," which is the basis of her work at CCAAM: developing human biology-based research models, utilizing human stem cells and bio-printing to create what are called “organ on a chip” and “disease in a dish,” to see how diseases and treatments act in human bodies, rather than in the bodies of genetically modified mice.
It is work that requires much more government commitment, meaning funding and legislative mandates. Nearly four million animals were used in tax-payer funded research, teaching and testing in Canada in 2018.
Upon emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Chandrasekera says she does not want to go back to the old normal, “where mouse biology is the gold standard.” Rather, she believes “there is more than enough brilliance, ingenuity and resourcefulness within the scientific community to create a new model, where homo sapiens serve as the quintessential animal model, and our biology is the gold standard.”
So as we sit in pandemic-induced isolation, reflecting on all that has changed and imagining all that will be, let us also take time to reconsider old ways that don’t work and new ways that could make us better.
The mandatory use of animal models in scientific research has been illuminated during this time as an old system. It is worth rethinking for the sake of science, human health, and the animals.
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