Webinars: 3Rs in COVID-19 - Where do we stand?
The 11th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences held virtually on 25 and 26 August two webinars on 3Rs in COVID-19 research. During the webinars, innovative model systems to study COVID-19 were presented, as well as new strategies for the development of vaccines. The presentations, made by Penny Hawkins, Koert Stittelaar, Christian Desaintes, Thomas Hartung, Shuibing Chen and Jan Willem van der Laan, are available online as well as the Q&A and the livestream.
This webinar series was supported by the Netherlands National Committee for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes.
Dr Penny Hawkins, head of the Research Animals Department at the RSPCA, presented the impact of COVID-19 related research on animals, and the potential dangers of a 'desperation science'. She reminded the benefits brought by certain approaches that could help reduce the impact on animals including increased global communication and data sharing as well as use of non-animal methods. It is important to remember the wider ethical issues at stake that require radical changes to the relationship humans have with other animals.
Koert Stittelaar, general manager of Viroclinics Xplore, discussed and presented some advantages of using refinement methods to experiments on animals. The presentation also discussed opportunities to promote the 3Rs principle such as the development and validation of alternatives, scientific literature and calls for grants.
Christian Desaintes, Policy Officer at the European Commission, presented the research actions of the Commission for COVID-19, as part of H2020, offering an analysis of the projects involving animals and the ones including alternatives. Desaintes highlighted the role played by the Commission in funding projects promoting alternative methods, many of which contributed to the COVID-19 research (e.g organoids and microfluidic devices). The impact of COVID-19 research on animals used for scientific purposes in 2020 will be presented through the EU statistics report by the end of 2022; but the extraordinary number of animals that have been killed in EU laboratories in 2020 without being used due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic will not be known, since Member States are only required to provide these data every 5 years.
Thomas Hartung, Director of the CAAT at Johns Hopkins University, highlighted the opportunities for new methods offered by the unprecedented challenge and success story represented by COVID-19. Among these methods are advanced cell culture and artificial intelligence, which allow faster development and more human-relevant data. Thomas Hartung introduced CAAT’s mini-brain project used to research SARS-CoV-2 and its impact on the human brain.
Shuibing Chen, Directory of Diabetes Program in the Department of Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine, highlighted the urgent need for physiological models using human-relevant cells to study SARS-CoV-2, which impacts different organ systems such as respiratory, gut, liver, heart, and pancreas. She then presented an experimental platform comprising cell and organoid derivatives from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs), and how hPSC-derived lung organoids show similar immune response as COVID-19 patients.
Jan Willem van der Laan, Senior Assessor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Medicines Evaluation Board and Chair Safety Working Party at EMA, presented EU and international guidance on nonclinical testing of vaccines. In particular, he clarified the positions of the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities (ICMRA), published in March 2020, to set the rules on preclinical studies for COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
Overall, the high-level presentations of these webinars confirmed the positive scientific developments on human-based approaches and the high political commitment to non-animal science. However, it also showed that more concerted actions are needed to improve the trust on these new scientific approaches and their regulatory acceptance, while maturing our ethical concerns about performing experiments on animals and human-animal relationships in general. As highlighted by the first speaker at these webinars, Dr. Penny Hawkins, “unless radical changes are made to the ways humans use other animals and share the environment with them, the cycles of disease and suffering will continue for both humans and animals”.