Ahead of World Day for Laboratory Animals on 24 April 2020, Animal Defenders International (ADI) has launched a petition calling for governments to prioritise and support advanced methods, more relevant to humans, to accelerate the development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.
As money is thrown at research into COVID-19, a growing number of animal studies are being carried out using a range of species around the world including the UK, US, the Netherlands and China. Many of these are being undertaken in a bid to find an effective vaccine or treatments for COVID-19.
It is hoped that a vaccine for the virus could be available from as early as next year, however vaccine research and development typically takes 15-20 years, with animal research, currently, a major part of the process.
An unreliable indicator of safety in humans
In a move to accelerate this lengthy process during these unprecedented times, the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities (ICMRA) has advised that the usual animal disease models to test the effectiveness of potential vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus which causes COVID-19) will not be required, before proceeding to human clinical trials.
Due to species differences, animals respond differently to substances such as drugs, and are therefore an unreliable way to predict effects in humans. More than 90% of drugs which prove promising in animal trials fail in humans, either due to lack of effectiveness or safety concerns. Of the drugs that arrive on the market, around 50% are later withdrawn.
Although the ICMRA is allowing laboratories developing vaccines to proceed straight to human clinical trials, safety testing on animals will still be required before a potential vaccine can be put on the market. During safety testing animals will typically be force-fed or injected with a substance while restrained, and suffer debilitating, even fatal, side effects. Such tests have been shown to be unreliable indicators of safety in humans.
COVID-19 animal tests in the UK and US
Despite this recognised, fundamental problem:
- In the UK, laboratories such as Imperial College, London, and Public Health England with Porton Down, Salisbury, are using mice, ferrets and macaque monkeys to test possible vaccines for COVID-19.
- In the US, army researchers at Fort Detrick in Maryland are using primates to test a possible vaccine for COVID-19. Tulane National Primate Research Center also hope to develop a vaccine, and treatment, and are creating primate models to study symptoms of the disease and how the virus is transmitted – both of which could be studied in patients to provide data more relevant to humans.
With specific details of the research unpublished at this time, similar studies undertaken on related viruses, including for MERS and SARS, indicate that the animals will likely be injected with a vaccine first, then exposed to the virus through the nose while sedated or restrained, and, after a period of observation of their symptoms, killed so that their tissues can be analysed. Throughout their ordeal, the animals will experience distress and suffering.
The need for better, faster science
Instead of these misleading and unnecessary tests, ADI is calling for advanced, human-relevant, scientific methods to be prioritized, and any regulatory requirements for animal research lifted, so that safe and effective vaccines and treatments can be progressed more quickly.
Sophisticated techniques, which have already provided key insights into the disease, include mathematical modelling of transmission and size of the epidemic; the use of patient lung fluid cultures to study the virus genome; patient biopsy samples to investigate lung tissue damage; artificial intelligence models to predict which drugs could treat COVID-19; using antibodies from COVID-19 survivors to treat patients; human organ-on-a-chip technology emulating human lung infection for drug discovery; organoids to investigate how the disease infects human tissue; and in vitro 3D human airway cell models for evaluating drugs.
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