Scientists are working on dozens of potential treatments and vaccines for the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Virtually all of them have one thing in common — they’re the product of animal research.
Indeed, the race to beat COVID-19 shows just how critical animal research is to medical progress.
Consider how mRNA-1273, the potential vaccine furthest along in the development process, came to be. Scientists at Cambridge, Mass.-based Moderna originally developed it to inoculate against the coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The vaccine has shown promise in mice and other animal models. The company hopes to launch phase 2 clinical trials in humans as early as this spring.
Or take the potential vaccine from Pennsylvania-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals. Mice and guinea pigs that have received it have produced both antibodies and T cells against the coronavirus. The research team is also investigating the vaccine’s impact in monkeys. Studies that test whether animals who have been inoculated are susceptible to infection by the coronavirus will follow.
Animal research is particularly crucial to the development of vaccines. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said in a White House briefing last month, scientists can “get a good feel … in animal models” for whether a potential vaccine will protect someone from a dangerous pathogen or risk enhancing their infection.
Animal models are also helping scientists repurpose existing drugs to fight the novel coronavirus. Gilead Sciences’ antiviral remdesivir has “shown promise in animal models for treating Middle East respiratory syndrome,” according to the NIAID. This month, Chinese scientists are expected to release results from two separate trials of Gilead Sciences’ antiviral remdesivir in more than 750 patients with COVID-19.
New York-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals is developing monoclonal antibodies with the help of humanized mice models. APEIRON Biologics is studying the effect of APN01, a recombinant human angiotensin-converting enzyme treatment, on laboratory mice.
Scientists are dusting off some decades-old vaccines against other germs to test if they could provide stopgap protection against COVID-19 until a more precise shot arrives.
Other scientists are investigating how the novel coronavirus works by observing it in animal models. Last month, Chinese researchers discovered that monkeys that had recovered from infection with the novel coronavirus showed no signs of reinfection when exposed a second time. This discovery could have vital implications for vaccine design.
People who have contracted COVID-19 are benefiting from several therapies and treatments that are the product of animal research. Take extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, a specialized medical treatment that uses an artificial lung to provide oxygenated blood to patients with critical respiratory issues — now including those with COVID-19. A University of Michigan researcher first developed the technique in sheep.
Imagine a world where all this research came to a halt at the behest of animal rights activists. People hospitalized with COVID-19 would not receive the high-quality intensive care they need. And there would be no chance of developing a vaccine to protect against a resurgence of the virus in the future.
That’s as true today as it was in Sabin’s era. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious threat to public health in decades. We must make use of every tool at our disposal to beat it. Animal research is perhaps the most powerful of those tools.
Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.