Could the coronavirus vaccine help to end both human and animal suffering?
A blog by Dr Penny Hawkins, head of the RSPCA Animals in Science Team.
There is no doubt that coronavirus has caused human suffering on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. It has impacted each and every one of us in our daily lives, from taking away simple pleasures like meeting a friend for coffee, to the deep distress of grieving for loved ones in isolation.
But there are always ideas that unite us as humans - and one of these is a collective desire to find solutions in vaccines and lifesaving treatments and to find them fast.
We all celebrated when we heard there were effective, safe vaccines, developed at amazing speed, which will help turn back the tide of human death and suffering and help us all return to our normal lives. These vaccines are a vitally important development and we absolutely welcome them.
The pandemic has highlighted an urgent need for us all as humans to re-evaluate our relationships with animals
But it is important to reflect on these critically important scientific breakthroughs and ask: what are the stories behind the vaccines and what lessons can we learn? And what can we do better in the future?
The pandemic has highlighted an urgent need for us all as humans to re-evaluate our relationships with animals and the pressure we inflict on the natural world. It's also a reality that thousands of animals including monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs, ferrets and mice were used in laboratories worldwide, as part of the process to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.
Regardless of the potential benefit to humans, this is a serious ethical issue and the suffering of these animals matters. These developments have shown what human endeavour, unprecedented funding and scientific collaboration can achieve, and we believe that such collaboration and determination should also be applied to replacing animals in laboratories.
It isn't just the team here at the RSPCA that are concerned about the ethical dilemma of using animals in this way. During lockdown, it was reported that two-thirds of people (65%) could accept that animals would be used to develop vaccines and medicines to treat COVID-19.
However, many were still conflicted over welfare concerns and the potential harms to the animals. And 84% of people feel more work needs to be done to find humane alternatives - we agree.
We want to see animals in science replaced with humane alternatives
Our RSPCA message is clear - we want to see animals in science replaced with humane alternatives and a global end to 'severe' suffering by 2030. We have outlined this in our new strategy Together for Animal welfare.
What do humane alternatives look like?
Examples include cultured cells and tissues or using computers to model biological processes and to make predictions. Others are the safe and ethical use of human volunteers, using simple organisms like bacteria or exploring exciting new, advanced Non-Animal Technologies like 'organs on chips'.
The potential for using these methods currently varies depending on the area of research and the questions scientists need to answer. But advances are being made all the time, and we believe that there is huge scope for increasing the development and uptake of these new technologies.
Why severe suffering?
Under UK law, animal experiments are categorised as causing 'mild', 'moderate' or 'severe' suffering. All levels of animal suffering are a concern to the RSPCA, but ending severe suffering is a top priority.
Each year, tens of thousands of animals in the UK - and as many as one million animals across the European Union - experience severe suffering. Globally, this figure is likely to be 10 million or more. Unfortunately, some experiments to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID may well cause severe suffering, because of the nature of the disease.
Our Animals in Science Department have set up a pioneering initiative, working with those involved in the regulation, use and care of lab animals in the UK, EU and internationally, to reduce and ultimately end 'severe' suffering.
We've seen a 51% reduction in 'severe' suffering so far but we're not done yet!
We've organised groundbreaking national and international events, produced resources to help scientists tackle severe suffering and got the issue on the international scientific agenda. Since 2014, when official data was first published for the UK, we have seen year on year falls, and an overall 51% reduction, in the number of animals experiencing 'severe' suffering in research and testing. We are so proud of this, but we want to get it down to zero!
Could coronavirus be the step-change towards replacing animal experiments?
So, out of the storm of this awful pandemic which has caused so much misery, fear and suffering for people, could there be a ray of light for lab animals? Could coronavirus pave the way to a step-change towards replacing animal experiments?
The race to find a vaccine has led to groundbreaking levels of international collaborations and joined-up thinking between researchers studying how the disease spreads, studying people who have been infected, and using Non-Animal Technologies.
Regulatory authorities have also worked together to see which animal tests can be avoided in vaccine trials. The main reason is to speed the end of the pandemic - but a positive side effect could be reductions in lab animal use and suffering if these experiences and approaches are built on in the future.
Wouldn't it be amazing if this unprecedented pooling of intelligence, resources and ingenuity not only discovered vaccines and treatments but also led to a major step forward towards ending lab animal use? That would be a legacy to be proud of.
Find out more about our work to end the severe suffering of laboratory animals
For almost 200 years, we've been an advocate for animals in all walks of life with our dedicated 'Animals in Science' team being a voice for animals used in research.