COVID-19 research exposes activists' lack of evidence
As the media stories around coronavirus mention, time and again, the?animal?models?being used alongside other methods?in numerous areas of Covid-19 research, it was at first noticeable that groups opposed to animal research had fallen a bit quiet. We had hoped it may remain that way but, slowly and surely, they are venturing opinion pieces which attempt to square what’s happening?in the world?with the?narrative they like to spin?and this, to judge from their writing, isn’t possible without?leaving most of the critical information on the cutting room floor.
First out of the traps was PETA, with?a?quick roundup of research techniques which?don’t?use animals. This is a list of techniques that, whilst not wrong, is?a?massively incomplete?account of the research going on. In?“COVID-19 Researchers Avoid Archaic Tests on Animals”, for instance, there’s a quick rundown of 5 studies, or parts of studies, that happened?not to be using animals?at the time of writing, but naturally no mention of the?35?that?were?using animals?(it’s now nearly 90)?which?were?covered on?animalresearch.info,?in?the media and elsewhere.?
Also incomplete are the quotes?they attribute to scientists. As they write, “Dr Stanley Perlman, a?coronavirologist?at the University of Iowa, notes that??infecting mice “doesn’t really tell you much about how the virus causes disease”.?
Such?a shame that the rest of this quote?(which?has been?lifted?from?this piece?by Nature), is missing. The full?attribution?from Perlman, a scientist who develops genetically manipulated?animal?models so that?they?do?model human disease, is:?
“Animals that develop only mild infections?could be?useful for testing drugs and vaccines, but they might not help scientists understand more severe cases, says Perlman. “It doesn’t really tell you much about how the virus causes disease.”?He says he will try infecting hACE2 mice?— when he can get them — but?he’s already thinking about developing other mouse models?to better mimic severe cases.”?
Peta’s case then, as usual, leans on missing out several absolutely critical details?such as?the fact?the very animal models they are discussing?are?useful for?testing vaccines?and the person that they’re quoting?both uses animals and?is?an expert in creating animal models which overcome his perfectly sensible criticism of using?a?weaker?animal model for?the?job?rather than developing another.?
Elsewhere, in “Coronavirus Vaccine: NIH Isn’t Waiting for Pointless Animal Tests” the Peta?blog reports that a potential vaccine?‘…isn’t waiting for the typical, lengthy animal-testing phase and is instead heading straight for human trials.’?Actually, the?animal trials are?still?taking place, just simultaneously with the human trials?instead of before.??And?some animal research has already?happened for this vaccine, as noted in the press release announcing the clinical trial.??
As The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which developed the vaccine with mRNA specialists?Moderna,?said on March 18?“NIAID investigators have conducted preclinical immunogenicity testing of mRNA-1273 in?mouse models.?
?These studies show that the vaccine produces a potent antibody response against the COVID-19 virus.” The statement goes on to?say?“The studies in mice and future studies in?nonhuman primates, in addition to the information from the Phase 1 clinical trial, will establish the rationale for testing the vaccine in larger trials if warranted.” Not exactly animal-free?what with all the mice and primates there.?
Testing in animals for the specific risk of vaccine enhancement, which should establish whether the vaccine is safe to expose larger numbers of people, will proceed simultaneously with human trials?of the vaccine.?Moreover, the?US government?will move to larger human studies only once human and animal studies confirm that the vaccine is safe.?Trials that show whether a vaccine can prevent infections in people?won’t?proceed?at all?without such data from animals.?
Animals can also be used to test things which the human tests do not. A human trial, for instance, might tell you if a drug is effective, but what if it also damages internal organs? How should?we test for that considering the?in vitro?methods we currently have?don’t outperform animal models??
Elsewhere,?Cruelty Free International?(CFI)?calls for?“quick, but humane and human-relevant action”.??Leaving aside the fact that ‘human relevant’ surely means anything with a clinical therapeutic value like cancer drugs based on hamster antibodies,?this article again relies on a selective reading of the facts.?
In common with the PETA article, CFI’s piece repeats the?silly myth?that “90% of new drugs that appear to be safe and effective in animal tests go on to fail in human trials”, which only sort-of works if you include reasons for?the?failure?to market a drug?that have?absolutely?nothing to do with safety?or efficacy.??
In essence, most?potential?medicines fail for practical or commercial reasons, not because the animal test gave duff information. Indeed, that’s exactly what?the reference allegedly backing up CFI's statement says, mentioning the word ‘animal’ only once in a 28-page paper on?the?reasons?why potential drugs fail to make it to market.?When a third of potential medicines fail to make it to market because a company?abandons a drug’s development for business reasons,?it’s?pretty?daft?to blame the results of animal tests for the ‘failure’.?
It is certainly not true to assert that 90% of new drugs that appear to be safe and effective in animal tests go on to fail in human trials for safety or efficacy reasons –?those numbers?are closer to 8% and 4% respectively.?It’s like saying ‘my nan died after drinking some tea’, when it wasn’t the tea that killed her – she just drank some tea at one point in her life and?years later?passed away of something?completely unrelated.?In fact, by that token more than 99% of our nation’s dead Nannas died after drinking tea!??
Elsewhere, the?Moderna?Covid?vaccine trial in the US?mentioned?above?by Peta, which has begun human trials after minimal animal studies, is recommended?by CFI?as the way forward?for clinical trials?without some important caveats. The first is that?there’s?a heightened risk to the human volunteers which, whilst justified in a pandemic,?would?be a risk too far in normal life. The second is that animal trials are being conducted alongside human trials?as mentioned above, not done away with.?There is of course no mention of?a?vaccine?produced in this way?potentially making the patient more susceptible to?Covid?-19, nor the fact that animal models will in many cases be the only way of flagging up potential side-effects before the vaccine is administered to?ever-growing numbers?of people.?
Blithe statements including “there is good evidence that animal tests ?do not ?reliably predict these things”,?and?“HIV/AIDS vaccine has been sought for more than three decades, with no success, in spite of hundreds of clinical trials of dozens of vaccine types showing promise and success in monkey tests” and “There are way too many genetic and biological differences in the way, many of which?affect the immune system” are all referenced by?way of?flawed papers?the?CFI?article’s?own?author wrote.?
The nadir of this silliness was reached in late March when 100 ‘experts’ in animal research warned that animal research?may slow down progress into?treatments for?Covid-19!?
Except, well you’ve guessed it –?most of?the?‘experts’?weren’t experts at all but campaigners including not just comedian Alexei?Sayle?but also Alexei?Sayle’s?wife! The evidence base supporting the claim was a misquoted World Health Organisation report, a couple of the myths quoted in this blog, an omission of the non-animal methods heavily mentioned in their own references and, ah, who cares -? it’s another evidence-free fraud. In science, the evidence is the only aspect that?counts?and the activists?clearly?don’t have any?if they’re?chopping up other people’s words to?change their meaning.??
Nobody should be dogmatic about using animals regardless of any alternative strategies, but neither should anyone be pretending that alternative strategies don’t themselves have significant risks and?drawbacks, or?denying that animal models are currently the only way of getting some critical data.??
Although?Covid-19 has brought?about no?positives commensurate to its costs, it may be a good time to examine how?animal alternatives, undertaken alongside animal studies, compare or complement one another. But it’s not time to model our drug safety testing regulations on those applied in a?time of?crisis, nor?time to throw away our most effective tool for answering questions?critical to our success?and certainly no time to be muddying the water of public debate with incomplete information?
The victims of disease have never been hypothetical, but now the victims?are?people everyone can relate to,?en?masse?– your family, a celebrity, a neighbour?- and?the ethical?questions?attending the use of animals to?prevent?suffering?are?thrown into sharp relief. It shows that those attempting to falsely discredit animal models?are?serving a principle of never using animals over the ethical choice of saving millions of lives.???
Thankfully,?a case built?on selective science?evaporates as soon as it meets?the?real?evidence?currently being considered by governments worldwide, and?this?suggests that any ‘ethical’ case based on a redacted account of the facts isn’t what most?people?would consider ethical at all.?