A number of experts are calling for non-animal research methods to be prioritized in the race to find a COVID-19 vaccine and treatments.
The experts warn that using animal tests could slow down the process, because of the significant physiological differences between humans and other animals like mice.
The nearly 100 experts*, academics, and other concerned parties made the plea in an open letter, spearheaded by advocacy organization Animal Defenders International (ADI), which says 'significant funding and precious time is being spent on animal research…. despite the known species differences which make the results from such data unreliable when translated to humans'.
The letter adds that since the identification of the virus, there has been a 'surge in the funding of research and testing to find a vaccine and treatments' alongside 'unprecedented collaboration and openness between researchers worldwide'.
While vaccine research and development typically takes 15-20 years (with animal research), some reports have suggested a vaccine could be available from as early as next year.
The International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities (ICMRA) has advised that the usual animal disease models to test the effectiveness of potential vaccines for the virus are not required before proceeding to human clinical trials, in a bid to accelerate the process.
However, according to ADI, 'such tests are still taking place, and in some cases in parallel with clinical trials'. The organization adds 'that while efficacy tests using animals do not need to be undertaken, before a potential vaccine can be put on the market, safety testing...will still be required'.
The issue, according to ADI is that animals respond differently to substances such as drugs due to species differences, which it says makes these tests 'an unreliable way to predict effects in humans' a concern backed up by the fact that more than 90 percent of drugs which prove promising in animal trials fail in humans, either due to lack of effectiveness or safety concerns.
Despite this, labs in a number of countries - including the U.K., U.S., Netherlands, and China - are using animals to test possible vaccines for COVID-19.
In a bid to circumvent physiological differences, researchers are 'now attempting to “humanize” mice to ensure they contract the virus' - but the letter says 'such fundamental differences risk impeding the production of vaccines and other treatments to help prevent and reduce the symptoms of COVID-19 in people'.
It adds while time, resources and efforts are being put into attempting to find the “ideal” animal model, advanced non-animal scientific methods, which relate directly to the disease in humans, are being progressed. These new methods include mathematical modeling, the use of patient lung fluid cultures, and patient biopsy samples among others.
In a statement sent to Plant Based News, ADI President Jan Creamer said there is an 'urgent need to tackle and treat COVID-19 and other human disease with better, faster science', adding: "To provide safer, more effective treatments to help people, we need to move away from unreliable animal research and use advanced scientific methods, more relevant to humans."
Dr. Aryan Tavakkoli MRCP FRACP, Respiratory Physician, added that the respiratory systems of animals used for COVID-19 research are 'known to be different from ours physiologically', and therefore it is 'only logical that human-based methods be prioritized and used for testing treatments and vaccines'.
"With incredibly sophisticated methods such as human lung models available, it is vital that resources and time are directed toward these to find treatments and a vaccine for this life-threatening virus," he concluded.
*Signatories include (among others):
Dr. Laura Leslie, a biomedical engineer at Aston University working on human airways models
Respiratory medicines specialist Dr. Aryan Tavakkoli
Professor Jon Heylings, Chairman and Owner of Dermal Technology Laboratory Ltd and Professor of Toxicology at Keele University
Dr. Malcom Wilkinson, Managing Director at Technology For Industry Ltd
Professor Alberto Alemanno, Professor of EU Law
Professor Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Colorado
Dr. Simon Brooman, Senior Lecturer in Animal Law at Liverpool John Moores University
Dr. Charlotte E Blattner, Doctor of Animal Law at Harvard Law School; and Kirstall Ltd.