Vaccines for the coronavirus—to date all tested on nonhuman animals—have made their way into distribution. This has prompted both hope for a brighter 2021, and a quandary for vegans and animal advocates opposed to such testing. More broadly, calls for the use of animals in coronavirus vaccine experimentation have increased, at the same time they are provoking criticism as highly exploitive, disregarding of the animals’ welfare, and indeed unnecessary. Fortunately, new technologies are allowing models that could make animal testing unnecessary.

Let’s state this upfront: Both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines now under distribution to humans used animal trials. Typically, vaccine development begins with animal models because it is supposed that if those fail, there is little reason to assume the vaccine will work for humans. However, according to the Associated Press, “Due to the urgent need for a vaccine in a surging pandemic, Pfizer and Moderna were given approval to simultaneously test their vaccines on animals while they were conducting Phase 1 trials on humans.” As early as July, 2020, Moderna announced positive findings from nonhuman primate testing, and moved to a Phase 3 trail of their vaccine using humans. By September, 2020 Pfizer was touting that its vaccine candidate protected against infection in preliminary non-human trials in mouse and nonhuman primate models. At least ten other companies are moving forward with animal trials for new COVID-19 vaccines, including new research on a nasal spray vaccine which has recently shown promise in animal trials using rodents.

For those promoting animal testing, this is obviously not a problem. For example one pro-animal studies group, Americans for Medical Progress (AMP), whose stated aim is to protect “your investment in biomedical research,” is arguing for the critical role of animals in developing COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. However, that the vaccines now available have been tested on animals presents a quandary for vegans, animal advocates, and those concerned with animal testing generally, with some arguing they will not take the vaccine

Several organizations have taken the initiative to address this dilemma. To address these issues, a group of highly-regarded vegan and plant-based doctors have created a video discussing some of the contentious issues around the vaccine. As noted in Plant Based News, which posted the video in the article above, “One of the issues the doctors raise is that the vaccine does not actually contain any ingredients of animal origin….” PETA-UK seems to add the condition that the vaccine be legally required into the ethical equation: “The goal of being vegan and advocating for animal rights should always be to bring about positive change for animals. As long as tests on animals are a legal requirement, refusing to take a medicine on ethical grounds will not help animals who have already been used in tests or spare any the same fate in the future.” 

The Vegan Society’s response to the COVID-19 vaccine is softer, stating, “it has never been more important for us to talk about the definition of veganism in the context of medications, including vaccines. The definition of veganism recognises that it is not always possible or practicable to avoid animal use, which is particularly relevant to medical situations. In the case of COVID-19, vaccination will play a fundamental role in tackling the pandemic and saving lives. As all vaccines currently are tested on animals, at this stage it is impossible to have a vaccine that has been created without animal use.” 

While the explanations and logics for taking the vaccine may vary, the overarching point is that the focus on the crucial nature of this vaccine to assist with global pandemic recovery provides a good time to rethink animal testing generally. From this perspective, advocate organizations such as Cruelty Free Europe argue that it is more human and effective to use non-animal scientific methods that directly relate to the disease in humans. And while “primate researchers” have raised a call to test leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates head-to-head in monkeys, some researchers say these studies will not add much to the overall effort. As quoted in the above article in Science, Moncef Slaoui, who headed vaccine development at GlaxoSmithKline and served as the chief scientific advisor for the US government’s Operation Warp Speed, “Frankly, I did this for 30 years, and the primate study is relevant to give you information before the [human] clinical trial. But when you have a phase III trial in tens of thousands of [human] subjects, the relevance of [the  human trial] information is 10 times, 100 times more significant.” 

Primatologist, Lisa Jones-Engle takes the argument further, noting that “Animals are not miniature humans. Developing a vaccine in monkeys and mice means it works in those species, but rarely in humans. Animals are complex social beings like humans but they differ genetically and physiologically in important ways. Their immune systems respond differently to pathogens and vaccines…. Look at the headlines over the last 40 years—how many times were we assured that an HIV or malaria or TB vaccine that showed promise in monkeys was headed our way? These “monkey-tested” vaccines fail time and time again in humans and in some cases, as happened with a test vaccine against HIV, actually harm patients.” (See also, cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff’s blog post in Psychology Today, “It's Time to Move on From Nonhuman Animal Models,” for further, related arguments by Marc and others.)

Fortunately, new technologies are creating new experimental models that may make animal testing a thing of the past. A solution supported by a growing number of scientists might lie in new research models that use human-biology-based testing instead of animals. Several alternatives are currently being refined. The first consists of three-dimensional human organs on a microchip, tiny tissue cultures that simulate human organs. Such models also are being used effectively to demonstrate drugs are therapeutically effective and nontoxic, speeding up their release and bypassing animal modeling, and for a lower cost. According to Dr. Thomas Hartung, the director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) at Johns Hopkins University, these technologies are so well established that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would reduce mammal testing by 30 per cent by 2025 and phase it out entirely by 2035. 

The above article notes that, these technologies, coupled with the use of more sophisticated computer modelling, plant-derived vaccines, and 3D bioprinted human tissue, could replace animal testing in not only vaccine development, but also in biomedical research, education, and regulatory testing. The benefits? In certain instances, according to Dr. Charu Chandrasekera, executive director and founder of the Canadian Centre for Alternatives to Animal Methods (CCAAM), such alternatives could save almost 90% of the cost of animal modeling. 

While perhaps not monetarily quantifiable, reducing the incalculable harm caused to animals through the use of unnecessary and outdated testing models is certainly more important. If it takes financial arguments to make this happen, then we're all for them.

More COVID-19 Resources

A recent recorded seminar conducted by animalsclimatehealth.comCOVID-19 Research: With or Without Animals?, explored such research. Moderated by Kathrin Herrmann (Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing), the session features speakers Aysha Akhtar (Center for Contemporary Sciences), Elizabeth Baker (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), Thomas Hartung (Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing), Lindsay Marshall (The Humane Society of the United States/ Humane Society International).

See also:
Eggel, Matthias; Camenzind, Samuel (2020). Authorization of animal research proposals – a comparison of harm concepts in different European regulations. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, (133).

Geerts, H. Re-engineering CNS drug discovery and development using computer aided modeling. In Silico Pharmacology. 2020 Nov 23;8(1):7.