Sunday, December 20, 2009

VandeBerg is all wet

It isn’t a coincidence that the people most worried by the slow and steady increase in the public’s concern about the use of animals in science are those who have the greatest financial interest in its continuation. Take for example, John L. VandeBerg.

VandeBerg is the director of the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research [and here]in San Antonio, Texas. In 2008, SFBR received $28,054,335 in taxpayer dollars to conduct experiments on animals, primarily monkeys. According to its website, SFBR has about 2200 baboons, the world’s largest captive colony they boast, 160 chimpanzees, and an unspecified number of other animals. USDA reports that they also have over 2000 opossums.

VandeBerg has voiced his alarm at the apparent trend toward a lessening of public support for animal research (even while government is increasing the tax dollars it gives to facilities like VandeBerg’s – so much for democracy.) But VandeBerg is incorrect, I think, when he argues that the reduction in public support is due to a growing mistaken belief, in VandeBerg’s terms, that animals aren’t productive models of human disease and drug response.

It is far from clear that the public’s growing distaste for the likes of VandeBerg stems from a misunderstanding of the history of medicine. It is more likely that this trend is due to a growing awareness that animals aren’t so different from us that hurting them isn’t immoral. This slow awakening to the minds and emotions of our fellow earthlings is likely due to television and the Internet and articles in popular magazines like National Geographic.

VandeBerg seems to have missed the fact that the use of animals in society is being challenged on all fronts. Circuses are being criticized for their treatment of animals, the animal farming industry is under fire, fur farms, puppy mills, bull fighting, where ever animals are being hurt, voices in opposition are becoming more noticeable, and according to VandeBerg, are having an effect.

If I’m right, then arguments about whether or not animal experimentation has led to advancements in AIDS treatments hardly matter, just as they wouldn’t matter, and would be just as distasteful if the VandeBergs of the world were arguing that experiments on poor human orphans were responsible for advancements in AIDS treatments and that a ban on their use would stifle medical progress. I don’t think most people (except maybe the VandeBergs being paid to infect them or round them up) would be moved by such claims.

His claim that animal experimentation has yielded some benefit is beside the point. (His claim about all of modern medicine is just strident hyperbole) The animal ag producers seem to understand that pointing to the rich array of cuts of beef, or pork, or the many recipes using chicken really don’t deflect people’s concerns over slaughter house images or the pictures of animals being beaten and abused on the farms.

The question of whether or not the use of non-human animals have been responsible for advancements in medical care is interesting, but it is many orders of magnitude less important than the question of whether it is moral to hurt others to benefit ourselves.

And it is pretty clear from even the weak system of oversight that holds facilities like SFBR to very minimum standards of care, that VandeBerg’s facility is just as hideous as the rest of the animal labs, that the people charged with “caring” for the animals don’t really care very much.

Here’s an entry from Elizabeth Pannill, DVM, a USDA/APHIS inspector’s May 18, 2009 inspection of VandeBerg’s facility:
B Cages # 6 Baboons from [sic] normally housed in this enclosure were in the holding chute while their primary enclosure was being cleaned. The drain had malfunctioned allowing waste water [sic] to accumulate in the chute containing the animals. The animals were standing in several inches of fecal/food contaminated water and their hair coats were wet. The animals were moved upon caretaker notification of the problem. All drains must be kept in working order and holding areas checked for standing water prior to release of animals into them to minimize contamination and disease risk to the animals.
The question of the efficacy of animal models or benefit to humans is interesting, but it misses the point. Nevertheless, from a sociological or scientific vantage, it is interesting in a couple of ways. For one thing, the way it is answered suggests much about someone’s beliefs and degree of knowledge. For instance, VandeBerg writes somewhat confusedly regarding polio:
The Salk vaccine was developed in 1952 using hundreds of thousands of rhesus monkeys and eliminated the nearly 47,000 cases that occurred annually during the epidemic of 1952 and 1953.
Actually, researchers in the US began importing rhesus monkeys at the turn of the century for polio research. The total number of rhesus monkeys used is unknown, but some estimates range as high as 5 million, which may be conservative. Primate research defender Deborah Blum writes in The Monkey Wars:
It used to be worse. It’s been a long time, but even primate researchers still talk with awe, and some dismay, about how many animals were used to develop a polio vaccine. “We went through a hell of a lot of monkeys,” says one high-ranking administrator at the NIH primate program. Before the race for the polio vaccine there were an estimated 5 to 10 million macaques in India. During the height of the vaccine work, in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the United States alone was importing more than 200,000 monkeys a year, mostly from India. By the late 1970s, there were fewer than 200,000 rhesus macaques in India. (Oxford. 1994 p 250.)
Vivisectors have been making wild claims about the benefits of their animal experiments for as long, apparently, as there have been vivisectors. For instance, regarding polio:
In 1911, the New York Times gushed that polio would soon go the way of smallpox, typhus, and other vanquished plagues. Its impeccable—if single—source was [Simon] Flexner himself. “We have already discovered how to prevent infantile paralysis [polio],” he noted. “The achievement of a cure, I may conservatively say, is not now far distant.”

Whatever led Flexner to make this wild prediction he never revealed. Perhaps the giant strides being made against other infectious diseases in recent years clouded his judgment. Or perhaps the growing strength of the antivivisection lobby, which had begun to target Flexner’s use of monkeys in his medical research, encouraged him to show more progress than had actually occurred. Either way, his statement became the model of the false optimism that would dominate polio studies over the next forty years.

Research would later show that the poliovirus entered through the mouth. What had led Flexner astray? For one thing, he unluckily chose the wrong monkey for his experiments. Macaca mulatta (rhesus monkey) is one of the rare primates that cannot contract polio through oral feeding. The virus simply does not replicate in its digestive track.

…This error, in turn, led to others. By passing poliovirus repeatedly through the brains and spinal columns of his monkeys, Flexner produced a strain—known as MV or mixed virus—that was highly neurotropic, able to multiply only in nervous tissue. This made the conquest of polio even more problematic since animal nervous tissue can provoke a serious allergic reaction in humans, making it a dangerous medium for growing the poliovirus needed for a workable vaccine. Given Flexner’s prominence, MV quickly became the strain of choice in the polio field, leading researchers down yet another blind alley. [emphasis in original] (David M. Oshinsky. Polio: An American Story. Oxford. 2005. pp 18-19.)
This wasn’t remedied until 1949 when Enders et al invented a way to grow the virus in vitro. See: P. Michael Conn is a Liar.

Maybe, from VandeBerg’s financially vested perspective, it is better to say simply and erroneously that the polio vaccine is the result of experiments on rhesus monkeys.

It is an interesting aside that the New York Times article mentioned smallpox and typhus as examples of vanquished diseases. Neither of these diseases was conquered as a result of experiments on animals. Jennifer Lee Carrell’s The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling the Smallpox Epidemic, is a good source for the history of smallpox inoculations. Typhus, on the other hand, apparently remains a serious problem and is best prevented by good hygiene.

VandeBerg seems to make the claim that only chimpanzees can be used in hepatitis C research, or at least that’s how I read his assertion:
Robert Lanford recently reported promising results in chimpanzees with a drug using a new strategy to prevent the hepatitis C virus from replicating. The drug, now in clinical trials, may soon be available to treat 3.2 million infected Americans and 170 million people worldwide. Chimpanzees are the only nonhuman animal model in which these tests can be undertaken.
VandeBerg’s writing isn’t too clear, as the polio comment makes clear, but I think he is saying here that only chimpanzees can be used in this sort of research. But there apparently is at least one other animal that is used in hepatitis C research, according to the NIH: the SCID-Alb-uPA chimera mouse model engrafted with human livers. It seems that VandeBerg is either uninformed or being intentionally misleading.

His other claims are not too strong either. It’s easy to make grandiose claims linking animal experimentation to every known treatable condition, but quite another to show a clear chain of dependency and causation. He provides no details for his claims so they have to be taken with a very large block of salt. But, as I wrote above, does it really matter whether he is right or wrong? The 2000 baboons and 2000 opossums at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research are doomed to be used at the whim of people who see them as expendable tools, people who eat animals, wear animals’ skins, and may even hunt and fish. Why would they care for the animals they experiment on? This is a point apparently missed altogether by the top scientist at Southwest.

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