Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Stay the course!"


I wrote recently about the seeming ethically-blind helmsmanship of the University of Wisconsin’s animal research program. The man at the tiller is Eric Sandgren, director of the university’s Animal Research Resource Center and responsible for compliance with federal regulations. Dr. Sandgren has said that ethical positions are arbitrary; one man’s right is another woman’s wrong, so to speak. It’s all so very confusing that one should simply throw up one's hands and get on with the important business of making money and growing the enterprise apparently. (Can you say: ka-$$$-ching!!?)

Lest I seem to be railing at a straw man, I acknowledge that he has argued that adherence to federal regulations is ethical behavior. But this puts him in a difficult corner. (And, if it requires mention: every violation at the university is an indication of Dr. Sandgren's performance as the director of the university's oversight program.)

The recent inspection of the university’s animal care and use by USDA/APHIS found that the university is still violating some of the same regulations they were cited for violating less than a year ago.

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Read the December 31, 2009Wisconsin State Journal story here. Read the July 17, 2010 Capital Times story here. View the inspection report here. Notice that the last item in the inspection report is labled: "REPEAT DIRECT NCI." REPEAT means that this is an on-going concern that the inspected facility has not corrected even after being cited for the violation. DIRECT NCI:
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Chump change

Dr. Sandgren’s argument leads to the inevitable conclusion that there are continuing ethical lapses at the university related to its use of animals, even if federal regulations are the part and parcel of ethics at the university. But he characterizes these lapses as “nickel and dime things,” and says he is “sick and tired of them.” He says they are “nickel and dime things” because nothing “major” was found.

I wonder how he defines “major”? Looking back through the local papers’ coverage of the past USDA/APHIS violations at the university that Dr. Sandgren has commented on, I can’t find an instance of him characterizing any problem as major, serious, important, etc.

The Animal Welfare Act has a couple purposes. It was passed into law in 1966 over concern that labs were knowingly buying and experimenting on dogs, likely people’s pets, who were being stolen off the street. (How times change. Rarely does one see dogs wandering neighborhoods as they once commonly did.)

Over time, the Act has been expanded in scope. A main thrust today is the requirement that institutions adhere (at least in writing) to the tenets of an idea called “The 3Rs” of animal research: reduction, refinement, and replacement. Refinement is the use of “techniques and procedures that reduce pain and distress.”

The university has been cited repeatedly for failing to assure that researchers demonstrate clearly that they have considered alternatives to procedures that “may cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress to the animals.” The ethical position encapsulated in this requirement is at the heart of the Animal Welfare Act and the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the two documents Dr. Sandgren says are his ethical compass. Yet he calls the violation of this basic tenet a “nickel and dime thing.”

And speaking of a lack of an ethical or moral compass...

The members of the Dane County Board of Supervisors have been told that their opinions on the issue of experiments on monkeys don’t and won't amount to a hill of beans, but that it would be better if they just closed their eyes to the 9000 monkeys being used in the Primate Experimentation Capital of the World.

And here’s a big shocker: this is the opinion of the local trade group, BioForward, representing, among others, Covance (7000 monkeys) and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) – the UW shell organization that parleys scientific discoveries into dollars, mega-dollars.

The letter from BioForward prompted a note from a friend of mine that seems to capture the position of the vivisectors and their supporters pretty well:
I am getting sick and tired of all these misleading letters to Board members. The whole point of the advisory panel is to examine the ETHICS of primate testing. So why not send a letter with ethical reasoning and justification behind it? Nowhere in that letter is there a discussion of ethics or even treatment of animals, just whether it is already allowed and the economic benefits from it.

In my opinion, the litmus test for creating an advisory panel should be if anyone who is defending primate research can give a cogent ethical reason why it should continue then there is no need for the panel. So far, from everything I've read and heard, all the reasons for continuing such research deal with (1) existing laws already in place mandating such testing, (2) economic incentive to continue to do so, and (3) regulations already in place to make sure nobody does anything “bad.” Obviously none of these 3 even remotely comes close to an ethical defense of primate testing. We see how flimsy many of these ethical defenses are, or according to [Paul] Kaufman, because people can make films and listen to music, it's okay to use monkeys in experiments.

The issue is quite simple. But the people we are dealing with are so corrupted by money and blinded by cash that they can no longer disentangle sense from nonsense.

[Note: BioForwards's letter was sent before Covance (7000 monkeys) was unfortunately removed from the resolution. Thus, the false or erroneous claim that the experiments are required by law is no longer at issue because the university does not conduct regulatory preclinical safety and efficacy studies. FDA does require animal testing, which Covance contracts for pharmaceutical and chemical companies, on "new to the world" chemicals and compounds. FDA requires testing on two species; one must be a non-rodent. There is no mandated testing on monkeys.]

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