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Covid-19 Exposing Flawed Moral Framework Behind Animal Testing

Human health battles, like cancer and heart disease, have both biological and social dimensions. But for each, as with Covid-19, we wrongly prioritize the biology, at the expense of other animals.

REBECCA DELKER: COVID-19, the disease resulting from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is just one of many human infectious diseases that originate in animals. Transmission of these zoonotic diseases has been linked to human activity that increases the frequency of inter-species contact required for a jump to occur… While we cannot say for certain where SARS-CoV-2 originated, early human cases point to a connection to markets in China that house and sell animals for food…

For those of us with one eye toward animal welfare, it is very easy to see the mutually beneficial connection between human health and animal ethics… But what may be less clear is the connection between preventive measures like these and the welfare of another group of animals: the animals in our labs.

Though we have curbed the rapid spread of disease through social distancing mandates, efforts are now focused on the development of new treatments and vaccines, which have historically relied heavily on animal research. Animals, ranging from mice to ferrets to non-human primates, currently serve as models of viral infection, readouts of drug and vaccine efficacy and toxicity, and factories that produce reagents like those used for some serological testing. As is always the case in biological research, their use is subject to ethical consideration.

Our current moral framework asks us to weigh the costs of experimentation to lab animals (both suffering and death) with the potential, yet always uncertain, benefits it generates for humans… Approximately 90 percent of clinical trials fail after success in animal models. Even still, our justification would go something like this: all information is valuable information because some unknown fraction of it will pave the way out of the corner we’ve backed ourselves into.

But this calculation ignores that prevention was always an option… When it comes to human health, as COVID-19 exemplifies, we prioritize the treatment of disease after the fact rather than the prevention of disease through more fundamental and proactive social changes. This reactionary approach is a consequence of our broader tendency to conceptualize disease as a biological problem in isolation from its greater social context. This foregrounds basic biological research in our biomedical enterprise at the expense of alternative preventive approaches.

Many of our primary health battles — cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, for example — contain both biological and social dimensions; but for each of these diseases, as with COVID-19, our fight prioritizes its biology. While we increase investment in biological research to find better treatments, including those that use lab animals, we do far less to address the social causes of disease…

This doesn’t mean that biological research is obsolete; but it does mean that its importance must be judged in relation to epidemiology and public health, economic policy, food policy, environmental policy… and the like. Disease is often not just biology gone awry; and the health of our population will benefit from re-prioritizing our biomedical approach to recognize this. The animals in our labs will benefit as well. SOURCE…


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