Animals In The Time of COVID

The coronavirus pandemic has changed all of our lives in many ways. From schools and offices to shopping and dining out to everyday social interactions, there’s hardly an aspect of society that has not been changed in some way.

Less talked about, however, is the effect of COVID-19 on animals—in particular, those housed in laboratories. The coronavirus pandemic has served to reinforce NAVS’ views on why researchers should not experiment on animals. From the early days of the pandemic, NAVS has followed and reported on the many ways in which COVID-19 is changing—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse—our work to end the exploitation of animals used in science.

Here are just a few of those stories. (as seen in the summer 2020 ‘Animal Action’)

“Extraneous” Lab Animals Mass Killed

As news of the pandemic and orders to “stay at home” emerged in March, many universities asked their researchers to “cull” extraneous lab animals due to disruptions in research and the potential shortage of animal care resulting from issues related to the coronavirus.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago received a memo in March advising them to “critically look at colonies and cull aged breeders or non-productive cages,” because reducing colony size would “preserve critical resources and time.”

As a result, researchers euthanized lab animals—and in very high numbers. Articles in The Scientist and Science magazines reported that, in order to downsize research labs to account for a smaller working staff, lab animals were being euthanized by the thousands. A large majority of these animals were mice and rats, who, along with birds, are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and who therefore are not entitled to inspections by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Mice and rats are typically euthanized by gassing them with carbon dioxide, through decapitation or by breaking their cervix. If these animals were protected under the AWA, it would not be so “easy” to dispose of them.

These mass killings happened all across the country: at University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and other institutions of higher learning. Some labs have killed more than 75% of their mice; other researchers were preparing for the possibility of killing 90% of their laboratory mice.

According to an article in the Journal of Higher Education (April 10, 2020), after the public revelation of the large-scale culling operations taking place in labs, “Researchers and animal-care officials at some institutions limit what they’ll say publicly about the challenge of caring for animals during the pandemic.”

While this mass culling currently seems to be restricted to laboratory mice, as the pandemic continues, additional animals are coming under scrutiny. Therefore, even as we persist in pushing back against the scientific community’s overall reliance on animal models to solve human health issues, animal advocates—including NAVS supporters—must continue to raise the alarm at researchers’ mass disposal of living creatures.

Non-Animal Models Aiding in Fight Against COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on individuals around the world, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths globally. As such, the development of efficient drugs or vaccines to combat COVID-19 is a high priority, and researchers are using human-relevant alternatives to accelerate work in this area.

While many researchers have been quick to use animal models in their efforts to combat COVID-19, there are limitations to that approach. Aside from animal welfare issues, experiments on animals commonly used for this purpose—such as non-human primates or genetically modified animals—put the focus on different species altogether and direct research efforts away from humans. Traditional animal tests also take a long time—and time is of the essence, especially during a pandemic.

So what kind of non-animal models are available for COVID-19 studies? Dr. Don Ingber’s lab at the Wyss Institute in Boston is using organ-on-a-chip devices. His lab had previously used their lung-on-a-chip devices to study human responses to different strains of influenza, which helped prepare them for the work that they are currently doing to study coronavirus.

Using a pseudo virus which is safe to use in the lab, researchers in the Ingber lab showed that they could successfully infect lung-on-a-chip devices lined with human lung cells. Other lab members are using computer algorithms to help identify existing Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs or new therapies to test in the organ-on-a-chip devices to determine if the drugs, or drug combinations, might serve as effective treatments.

Other labs are opting to work with human organoids or commercially available respiratory tissues that have human relevance to conduct their studies on COVID-19. Using cell-based alternatives can allow researchers to screen thousands of these drugs quickly, providing answers faster and with more human relevance that animal models ever could.

The Role of “Wet” Animal Markets

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, fingers have been pointed at live wild animal (“wet”) markets in Wuhan, China, as a probable source of the outbreak. These same types of wet markets were believed to be the source of the SARS epidemic in the 1990s, because the crowded, inhumane conditions of these markets are prime breeding grounds for diseases. They also provide ample opportunity for diseases to cross the species barrier between animals and humans.

In response to the pandemic, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced House Resolution 922, which expresses the House’s sense that all nations should permanently close their live wildlife markets. This resolution relies in part on the fact that “there have been widespread calls for the permanent closure of live wildlife markets from members of Congress, public health experts, wildlife and animal health experts, and animal welfare and conservation organizations.”

HRes 922 also cites Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said, “I think we should shut down those things right away . . . it boggles my mind how when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down. I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that.”

The Senate has taken up the fight against wet markets, as well. As a result of the ensuing outrage over evidence that dogs and cats were obtained from wet markets in China, killed and then brought into the U.S. for horrific research, a new bill, S 3628, was introduced in May. This bill would prohibit the use of federal funds to purchase dogs and cats from wet markets in China.

In May, the Senate also introduced S 3759, which would close high-risk wildlife markets in the U.S. in order to prevent wildlife disease transmission globally. This legislation may be the first step in ensuring that the U.S. leads the way in closing these markets.

Dissection Alternatives in the Spotlight

As we began practicing social distancing and avoiding congregating in large groups, many schools across the country made the decision to cancel face-to-face classes this spring and move instruction online. And as we move into the fall, many schools are continuing with online coursework.

The transition to online teaching presented challenges for many educators and forced them to rethink how they deliver course content. Science educators who had planned classroom dissection exercises needed to use virtual dissection alternatives—and recognized the advantages these learning tools offer.

NAVS saw an uptick in the number of educators reaching out to us about dissection alternatives over the last several months. One teacher noted, “I was delighted to hear of your free download of the Froguts virtual dissection software as our instruction has been disrupted due to the COVID-19 closures.”

Another wrote, “I (like everyone else) had to figure out how to make labs work virtually thanks to the pandemic. I found your tool and I liked it a lot. I was able to put together something that I found adequate and that still gives students some feeling of what they missed out on in lab.”

NAVS is pleased that we are able to offer dissection alternatives to teachers and students to ensure their education is not disrupted—in these times, and always.

We also believe that when biology educators that are new to using dissection alternatives have the opportunity to use these educational tools as replacements for dissection, that they will recognize many of the advantages about alternatives that NAVS has long touted. It is our hope that they will actively choose to use these alternatives over dissection specimens in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Though some areas are taking steps toward re-opening, we—and the animals—will be dealing with the lasting effects of the virus for months and years to come.
Times like these shine a bright spotlight on the cruelty and waste of animal experimentation and help to reinforce the importance and urgency of NAVS’ mission. Now more than ever, we must move away from society’s reliance on animals in science.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Animal Action.