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Opinion: Animal rights groups choose coronavirus over your safety

Matthew R. Bailey

Top U.S. health officials delivered a sobering message last week: Americans must prepare for the inevitable spread of the novel coronavirus within the United States. So far in the U.S, six people have died in Washington state due to the virus that has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people and infected over 89,000 worldwide.

Fortunately, some of the world's top medical researchers are now working on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. That vaccine is poised to be the product of animal research. It’s a case study in just how crucial animal research is to improving public health.

Two researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison just announced that they'll “test medical countermeasures such as vaccines and therapeutics” in nonhuman primates. They hope to discover how much of the novel coronavirus virus enters the body, where it infects the lungs, and how immune systems respond to it.

The Tulane National Primate Research Center in Louisiana is establishing a coronavirus research program that will employ nonhuman primate models to study the progression of the disease. Researchers there claim that such models will answer many of the unknowns relating to the disease and perhaps yield a working vaccine.

Scientists at New York-based biotechnology company Regeneron are working with mice to see how they respond after being infected with a lab-created version of the coronavirus. The researchers have modified the mice’s genetic code to mimic a human’s immune system. They hope to use the antibodies the mice generate following infection to develop an effective treatment.

The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerges from the surface of cells, blue/pink, cultured in the lab.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health is investigating whether an existing anti-viral drug called “remdesivir” might work against COVID-19. Developed using rhesus macaques, remdesivir is effective against Nipah virus, Ebola and MERS, another coronavirus strain that has killed over 800 people since emerging in 2012.

The initial results have been promising. A 35-year-old American coronavirus patient recently used Washington’s “compassionate use” laws, which allow critically ill patients to access unlicensed drugs, to gain access to remdesivir. He quickly recovered, but it’s too early to definitively attribute his recovery to the drug.

Researchers working on vaccines or treatments for threats like COVID-19 depend on animal models because they provide the closest approximation of how a potential therapy will operate in the human body. Mice and monkeys are two of the most widely used animal models. Mice share 85 percent of our protein-coding and regulatory or “functional” DNA. Nonhuman primates share more than 90% of our functional DNA.

The interaction between a promising vaccine or treatment and a living organism is too complex to replicate in a petri dish or computer simulation. For this work, there’s simply no substitute for a live animal model.

The most common rodent pests in the United States are the house mouse, the Norway rat and the roof rat.

That’s why animal research is the basis for so many medical advances, including vaccines for measles and polio as well as life-saving diabetes drugs. More than 80% of all Nobel Prize winners in medicine and physiology relied on animal research to arrive at their path-breaking findings.

Despite the medical progress animal research has enabled, some activists are trying to restrict its use by arguing that it’s inhumane. But animal research is tightly regulated by the federal government. Just like in hospitals, researchers are required to use appropriate anesthetic and analgesic drugs to ensure animals don’t experience pain. Those responsible for overseeing research must certify that use of animals is necessary. Even then, scientists are required to use as few as possible.

Yet according to a Pew survey, slightly less than half of Americans — 46% — favor animal research. Once animal research yields a treatment for the novel coronavirus, perhaps the remainder will change their minds.

Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.