Don’t forget the lab animals during COVID-19


Don’t forget the lab animals during COVID-19

20 May 2020
Eurogroup for Animals
The education of new scientists and investment in core facilities for non-animal methods are key to move towards non-animal science, which may be compromised by current and future investment in COVID-19 research: this was just one of the conclusions drawn by the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals today.

In their 367th meeting, “The role of non-animal approaches in COVID-19-related research”, the Intergroup gathered online today to discuss a particular consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic: the use of animals in the research that’s being carried out to try to better understand the disease. 

Institutions and organisations all over the world are investing in finding solutions for the spread, treatment and prevention of the virus, and trying to identify and develop potential therapies and an effective vaccination. Some of their methods involve the use of animals. At the meeting, several experts gave their opinion on the power of new animal-free testing methods to better understand, prevent, and treat diseases such as COVID-19.

Prof Thomas Hartung, Director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA, stressed that US-based agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency have been playing an important role in setting the research agenda to move towards animal-free testing methods. Though the EU has the best legislation in the world, Prof Hartung cautioned that this has not yet produced any visible impact on the use of animals in research and testing. If European agencies would adopt an active role in setting out the European research agenda, we could soon see relevant changes in scientific practices, he said. Moreover, if the use of non-animal research methods could be enforced under the current EU legislation, this would send an important message and boost scientific practices that don’t use animals.

Prof Pieter Hiemstra, Head of the Laboratory for Respiratory Cell Biology and Immunology at the Leiden University, the Netherlands, talked about the limitations of COVID-19 models that currently use animals. He highlighted the opportunities and challenges of using human cell culture models to study COVID-19 and lung disease, stressing that support is needed to increase the validity and applications of current in vitro models. Better access to human cells is needed, as is an increase in the complexity of models to better mimic the human system, and full integration of different organs-on-a-chip that can lead to an entire body-on-a-chip. To continue the development and improve the use of these methods, meaningful multidisciplinary collaborations need to be built, and dedicated grants should be offered to animal-free and human-relevant approaches. 

Prof Hiemstra also addressed the fact that regulators and researchers must discuss regulatory needs and validation processes from the conception phase of any project that aims to advance animal-free safety testing methods. To boost the use of new approaches that do not involve older practices, life sciences curricula must be changed to train new scientists in the new methods, as well as to invest in core facilities to improve the availability of these methods, he said.

Dr Pierre Meulien talked listeners through the Innovative Medicines Initiative’s experience in advancing the application of the 3Rs of replacement, reduction and refinement, with a focus on non-animal approaches and improving translation to the clinic. He also explained how this experience is being applied to their calls for research projects to tackle COVID-19. He highlighted the importance of prioritizing multidisciplinary projects that combine regulators, industry, academia, and clinicians to increase the social and clinical impact of research results, as well as the convergence of state-of the-art technology and multidisciplinary teams. There are still challenges in building trust in new models, and this is also made clear by the higher public visibility of animal-based research. This happens in part because the results of experiments on animals are easier to explain, despite their translatability to humans usually being very low - so it is important to be transparent about  the limitations of animal methods and the results of non-animal methods in any public fora. Though coordination efforts on COVID-19 research are looking at the best integration of methods to speed up results, the role of all stakeholders is still very relevant to increase the visibility of and trust in new ways of acquiring knowledge in life sciences.

Laura Gribaldo, a researcher at the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, shared the latest work of the European Union Reference Laboratory for Alternatives to Animal Testing (EURL ECVAM) that provides useful knowledge and recommendations to improve the uptake of non-animal methods in specific testing and disease areas. These included recommendations on non-animal-derived antibodies, a review of non-animal models used in research into respiratory diseases, and recommendations to improve cross-disciplinarity in research. In addition, EURL ECVAM has participated in a European pilot project to promote alternative methods in education and training, which has resulted in the Schoolnet course “The Three Rs and Animal Use in Science”, among other achievements. The education of future scientists represents a first step for a paradigm shift in research.

Following the meeting, the Intergroup will prepare recommendations based on the knowledge shared by our guests and send them to Commissioners María Gabriel and Stella Kyriakides. We hope this will lead to a set of criteria for calls, both on COVID-19 and in the future, that can improve the effectiveness of every EU research investment and tremendously reduce the impact on animals. We will also set up a Working Group to continue our work in this area, and advise the European Commission to put forward a concrete strategy to move towards non-animal science during the current political term.

The COVID-19 crisis has been a dramatic reminder of the necessity to reevaluate our relationship with other animals. This not only means farmed and wild animals, as reinforced by today’s presentation of the EU Green Deal’s Farm-to-Fork and Biodiversity to 2030 strategies, but laboratory animals too.