Animal-Based Research Helps Scientists Develop Responses to COVID-19

2020-04-14 | AKC Government Relations Department

As the world reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, it eagerly anticipates a vaccine to reduce or eliminate the virus’ public health threat.  With AKC events across the country cancelled or postponed, the vast majority of us in the dog world are practicing social distancing and self-isolation to help avoid, or prevent the further spread of, the virus.  As states do almost everything possible to best protect residents against COVID-19, we—the breeders, owners, fanciers, and enthusiasts who serve as the backbone of AKC—must remember how animals are contributing to the development of life-saving medicines and sustainable global health.  

According to the Milken Institute, companies and academic institutions are working to develop approximately 80 COVID-19 vaccine candidates, and at least four vaccine candidates have begun being tested on animals.  In one clinical trial, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an investigational vaccine was developed using a genetic platform called mRNA, or messenger RNA.  That vaccine directs the body’s cells to expel virus proteins.  It is hoped this will elicit robust immune responses.  The vaccine is called mRNA-1273 and was developed by NIAID scientists and private-sector collaborators.  As a coronavirus variant, COVID-19 is significantly similar to both SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome); and scientists were able to quickly develop mRNA-1273 because of prior studies, including animal-based studies, of related coronaviruses that caused the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the MERS outbreak in 2012.  According to NIH, the mRNA-1273 vaccine has shown promise in animal models, and is the first COVID-19 trial to be examined in humans.  Being tested in animals and humans in parallel, the first human participants received the investigational vaccine on Monday, March 16, 2020. 

AKC recognizes the invaluable contributions to both human and veterinary medical knowledge and practices that have resulted from medical research on animal subjects, including dogs.  We believe that all efficacious alternatives to the use of dogs should be explored before using dogs, that the research should clearly necessitate the use of dogs, and that standards of humane care and treatment of such dogs should be scrupulously observed.  Also, the AKC strongly believes that individuals who utilize dogs in research should bear full responsibility for ascertaining the source of their dogs and for assuring that suppliers comply with federal, state, and local regulations.

AKC Government Relations is currently tracking 64 legislative proposals at the federal and state levels that regard animal-based scientific research or testing, many of which seek to limit or outright ban the practices.  Many of the organizations or informal groups behind these proposals promote animal rights ideologies and seek to end all humane use of animals, regardless of the impact on animal or human health; and many use visual elements featuring dogs to compel audiences to believe that dogs and other species that are research subjects are being treated cruelly or inhumanely.  They take these positions despite the operational and care standards research facilities must maintain to meet both government-mandated requirements and the rigorous standards needed to maintain scientific integrity.  Moreover, according to the National Association of Biomedical Research, the number of dogs used in research has decreased by 71.1% since 1979.  Dogs now account for less than 0.05% of all animals in research.  In fact, 99% of research animals are mice, rats, and fish.  A relatively small number of dogs are still needed because they are the most appropriate model, or the only one possible, to answer specific research questions.  Dogs and people get many of the same diseases, and what we can learn from studying dogs in medical and scientific research often results in treatments that help both people and dogs alike.

While socially-driven spread of COVID-19 can be reduced through government-mandated shelter-in-place orders and by practicing social distancing and improved personal and interpersonal hygiene,  future advances may require humane animal-based scientific research.  Past scientific research, including findings from research on SARS and MERS conducted over the past 15 years serves as the foundation upon which vaccine development to address COVID-19 is being conducted today.  Today’s research will no doubt be the foundation upon which future knowledge and practical applications of that knowledge, such as vaccines, will be based.  As enlightened dog lovers we must do what we can to protect humane animal-based scientific research and the hope it engenders toward a healthy future, both for us and the dogs we love so much.   

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