Tears Over Sandy and Italy

| by Dr Ray Greek
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I was interviewed by Hen House for their 170th podcast episode and Dr Robert Jones and I have published A Review of the Institute of Medicine’s Analysis of using Chimpanzees in Biomedical Research in Science and Engineering Ethics.

Much has been written about Hurricane Sandy but recently the fact that many animals used in research were killed has been highlighted (and here). Also recently, a lab in Milan, Italy was occupied by animal activists who apparently released animals and generally wreaked havoc in the lab. A perusal of the articles and comments reveals the usual nonsense. Vivisection activists are essentially saying that life on earth would not be possible without animal models and animal activists are focusing on the ethics of animal experimentation. Some animal activists are bringing up good points regarding science and asking good science questions but others are attempting to discuss science without a clue as to what science is or how it is used. This does not help their cause.

Sadly, there is suffering that goes on in animal labs and suffering that results from the data that comes out of animal labs. I find both abhorrent but focus on the latter. Correspondingly, all the articles I have read regarding lab animals and the hurricane and the occupation in Milan center on the poor scientists who are in sweating blood in an attempt to find cures for humankind and who are grief-stricken and in tears that society will lose all the cures that they were on the verge of discovering. Sorry, but that just has not been my experience in the several medical schools and teaching hospitals that I have been affiliated with.

First, the most tears I have ever seen shed regarding lab animals was when a grant was not renewed or the animal modeler was unable to get one in the first place. I have seen anger when there were labeling errors or some other mistake was made with the animals but not because the animals were wrongly killed. Rather, there would now be paperwork issues and THAT might endanger a grant.

Second, I have never seen an animal modeler upset because the pursuit of cures was being setback due to a flood or other catastrophe, as a vast majority will tell you in private that they are not searching for cures. That is just something they say to get grant money. They are really doing research because it is fun, it pays the mortgage, it makes the dean happy, and they might finally be recognized for being the brilliant person they have always known themselves to be. Animal-based research persists in large part due to ego. I am not discounting money and tradition but the researchers themselves are driven by ego first and money second in my experience. The same is not true of universities.

Third, if the ego of the animal modelers was not bad enough, almost everything a scientist says or writes is run through the university PR department. Read any press release regarding “a major breakthrough,” and see who authored it: the PR department with the help of the scientist. The PR department exists to bring in money for the university, directly or indirectly, and nothing brings in money like animal-based research. Directly, it brings in grant money, a large percentage of which goes to the dean and indirectly it seduces large donors to give more money because “the scientists at our university are top notch and are going to cure babies of blindness” or cancer or seizures or AIDS or whatever. The reality would be anathema to donors and alumni.

Vivisection activists are using Sandy and the situation in Italy to complain even more loudly that even though their profession is dangerous and hence should be funded with even more money. They ignore little items like the fact that yet another HIV vaccine failed in clinical trials and may have even increased the risk of contracting HIV. The trial received at least $77 million of taxpayer money in addition to the money for the research on animals that led to the development of the vaccine. (See hereand here.) Dr. Anthony Fauci summed it up: “It didn’t work.” One report stated:

Though this drug wasn't intended to be licensed for public use, it was part of the ongoing research into finding an effective vaccine, and doctors involved say that this was still an informative step in that process. As Dr. Susan Buchbinder, director of Bridge HIV which does clinical trials for the SF Department of Public Health, puts it to the Ex, "As we learn more information we try to revise each vaccine. And that way we inch closer toward a more effective vaccine."

That is called trials and error, and is not dependent on animal-based research. In fact, society may have already lost an HIV vaccine because of animal models. Many advances in medicine came about as a result of trial and error. However, because an animal was once studied—and probably misled scientists—the advance is claimed to be due to animal models. Whoever has the largest PR machine wins battles like this and the animal model industry has a very large PR machine. Almost every teaching hospital in the US conducts and profits from animal-based research and therefore all those PR departments contact the media outlets in their area and thus rumors are reported as truth with little to no critical examination of the claims.

I am positive tears were shed over the destruction of labs on the East Coast and in Italy. I am equally sure the scientists were not crying over the loss of animals and all those potential “cures,” but rather the damage to their careers.

For more on the science of why animal models should be abandoned see FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed.