Race to vaccine offers oppor­tunity for animal-free research

5 maj 2020

Large numbers of laboratory animals are used worldwide in the search for a vaccine against the coronavirus. Because animal testing is seen as a crucial part of medical research according to stubborn assumptions. But the idea that "animal research could get us out of the lockdown at an accelerated pace is a false reassurance for which there is no indication whatsoever", said member of parliament for the Dutch Party for the Animals Frank Wassenberg. "Animal testing costs a lot of time and money, while 85 percent of all animal testing for new medicines does not yield any results for humans." That's why the Party for the Animals advocates for fully investing in innovative animal-free research. "Let's use this crisis as a turning point, precisely because of the urgency."

World map from the European Animal Research Association showing which institutes worldwide are engaged in (animal) research on Covid-19.

The advance of the coronavirus has been slowed down by global lockdown measures, but it hasn't stopped. A vaccine against Covid-19 is therefore important and the race towards it is in full swing. The search for a cure goes hand in hand with finding and testing animals that might be susceptible to the virus in a similar way to humans. Research centers worldwide therefore test on mice, ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, and monkeys - because animal testing is part of the usual biomedical practice and it is laid down by law worldwide that new medicines must first be tested on animals.

Not only does this result in heartbreaking animal suffering, it's also inefficient. The time and money-consuming animal experiments don't always correlate with the effect of a medicine in humans. Test animals often appear to differ too much from humans to translate the research results into humans. Advances in genetics and cell biology show that the current system of artificially making animals sick to subsequently investigate the healing process is obsolete. That's why many researchers long for better alternatives.

And they exist. Computer technology in combination with the cultivation of cells and organs in the laboratory, for example, or residual material from the operating rooms of hospitals. Human tissue tells much more about the effect of medicines in humans than laboratory animals will ever do. However, Wassenberg explains: "Many politicians have little knowledge of the many limitations of laboratory animal research. The fear of the new predominates. So little happens: laboratory animal research is still seen as the holy grail."

Protest against animal testing in 2019 in Rotterdam.

According to the Party for the Animals, this can and must be done differently, and the current race against the clock also offers opportunities: "The development of a vaccine against corona can be an important test case. Normally that takes at least ten years, now unorthodox measures are needed to speed up the process. One measure mentioned is skipping the usual animal test. In addition to an enormous amount of animal suffering, this also saves a lot of time. In their place, innovative research methods without laboratory animals can be widely used."

Ban on tests on monkeys
The Dutch Party for the Animals has been advocating to phase out animal experiments and to encourage animal-free research for years. "If we no longer want to let the development of our knowledge of disease and health be inhibited by animal testing, the government must dare to make other choices. Every year, the government invests hundreds of millions of euros in research on laboratory animals - money that cannot be spent on animal-free research, even though it is achieving increasingly better results. That has to change." The party calls on the government to truly invest in innovative techniques by transferring a percentage of the laboratory animal budget to animal-free research.

Monkeys used for gruesome trials at the Netherlands-based Biomedical Primate Research Center. Photo: Remco Stunnenberg.

In addition, the Party for the Animals wants a ban on research with monkeys and closure of the BPRC, or Biomedical Primate Research Center - the largest monkey research center in Europe, as soon as possible. It was announced two weeks ago that Java monkeys will be infected with the Covid-19 virus and injected with experimental vaccines. "There is a lot of social resistance to research with monkeys. The experiments are often very cruel and painful. Researchers are now trying to improve the image and take advantage of the - justified - craving for a vaccine, but the only thing that is as yet certain in this research is that Java monkeys will suffer severely, with no guarantee that that suffering will provide any relief to current or prospective Covid-19 patients. Researchers who are very proud to report that they are infecting animals for the common good serve primarily their outdated self-interest."

Sister parties and other animal rights organizations worldwide also drew attention two weeks ago to the tens of millions of animals that suffer and die worldwide - often for nothing -, on World Day for Laboratory Animals. Together these parties are committed to innovative research methods without laboratory animals and with better results. Because: "Why should we keep an outdated research system in place if there are animal-friendly, less cumbersome alternatives?".