While scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US are moving COVID-19 vaccine tests to human trials without a lengthy animal-testing phase, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has decided to take a step backwards and test on ferrets.
According to the BBC, CSIRO scientists have inserted vaccine samples into the ferrets at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Victoria. They’ve chosen the small, furry mammals because they supposedly contract the novel coronavirus in the same way humans do. Yet studies (read in full here and here) have repeatedly shown that ferrets don’t develop symptoms from the virus in the same way humans do or die because of it.
Experimenting on ferrets and other animals to address the pandemic is a path full if pitfalls. NIH reports that 95 out of every 100 drugs that pass animal tests fail in humans because they are either unsafe or ineffective. Experiments on animals divert time and funding away from superior non-animal methods.
Taking healthy sentient beings from a completely different species, artificially inducing a condition, keeping them in an unnatural and stressful environment, and trying to apply the results to a disease in humans is a dubious approach at best.
The fundamental issue is that the differences among species are so vast that results in animals are, at best, a very poor approximation of what will happen in humans or, at worst, dangerously misleading. Experimenters have been trying in vain for 30 years to find an effective vaccine for HIV/AIDS using monkeys and mice, and out of more than 100 candidate vaccines that had been tested on animals, none was effective in human clinical trials. Furthermore, animals in laboratories often display behaviour indicating psychological distress – and experimenters acknowledge that the pathological consequences of stress jeopardise the validity of the data produced.
The best way to fight COVID-19 is in the hands of brilliant scientists with modern testing methods – not in the bodies of depressed ferrets who need to be anaesthetised when forced to inhale the virus so that they don’t sneeze. Around the world, trailblazing scientists are adopting research methods that deliver benefits to humans without harming and killing animals. Why can’t Australia do the same?
PETA is urging the CSIRO to bypass tests on animals and instead conduct safe straight-to-human vaccine and drug trials in order both to spare animals suffering and to have the best chance of beating the current pandemic.