TCS Daily

"You Dirty Rats": Activists Jeopardize Biomedical Research

By Sally Satel - December 11, 2001 12:00 AM

In mid-November Congress approved an agriculture spending bill that allows the US Department of Agriculture to start developing new rules to regulate the use of mice, rats and birds in scientific research. These creatures, roughly 30 million of them, represent 90 to 95 percent of the animals used in experiments annually and animal rights groups have long lobbied for their oversight. Biomedical groups for their part are against a new rule, insisting that it will merely spawn a lot of useless red tape while siphoning millions of dollars from research budgets.

What happened in the Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittee last month was only a first step toward actually bringing rats, mice and birds under USDA oversight. Still, it was a significant development in a longstanding battle between biomedical researchers and animal rights groups over the regulatory fate of these animals.

The conflict originated in the 1972 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) which explicitly omitted laboratory rats, mice and birds from USDA oversight. Including them would overwhelm the USDA budget, the department said, and more important, the animals are already covered by other oversight mechanisms.

In 1992, twenty years later, animal rights advocates finally persuaded a court to invalidate the exemption. Leading the charge was the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation (ARDF) whose goal is replacement of animal subjects with alternatives like cell cultures or computer models. The foundation and its allies were later foiled when an appeals court ruled that animal advocates had no standing to sue and overturned the decision.

However, in June of 2000, ARDF -- an off shoot of the American Anti-Vivisection Society -- litigated yet again in U.S. District Court, this time winning standing to sue. In September 2000, the USDA agreed to draft caging and care rules for the heretofore-exempted animals, explaining its move as a way to avoid a possible court order telling it how and when to write the rule.

Duly alarmed, the biomedical community quickly persuaded the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, then chaired by Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), to add a ban on such rule making to the 2001 agriculture spending bill.

Sen. Herb Kohl: A Rat`s Best Friend

That ban, however, just expired on September 30 and although the House planned to extend it, Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), the new subcommittee chairman ushered in this spring along with party realignment, was won over by the animal rights lobby. Now the USDA can begin writing regulations and seeking pubic comment on extending the AWA to rats, mice and birds, though it cannot finalize any rule before September 30, 2002 when the annual measure expires.

Should the rule ultimately become law, the costs of covering all those whiskers would be substantial. According to the journal Science (Nov. 23), the USDA regulates about 2400 animal facilities. Adding rodents, the department estimates, would almost double the number of total research sites for inspection. The facilities themselves would also be hit hard. An analysis by the National Association for Biomedical Research estimates expenditures anywhere from $80 to $290 million a year for the paperwork burden alone. The Association of American Medical Colleges, which represents teaching hospitals and their large research enterprises, warns that reporting requirements will soar while animal welfare will not be improved "one iota."

The constraint on medical research under the weight of a new and costly bureaucracy is worrisome enough, but concession to the animal activists is especially maddening when there is little proof that their furry constituents are being mistreated in the first place. After all, about 90 percent of those exempted species are already covered. Roughly 600 institutions follow strict and rigorous guidelines beyond those required by the AWA, and are accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.

Furthermore, any facility getting research funds from the U.S. Public Health Service (e.g., NIH, all medical schools, teaching hospitals and major research-intensive universities) must take care of any rats, mice or birds according to the PHS`s Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. They must also adhere to the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. The remaining ten percent of unregulated institutions would be biotech companies not receiving PHS funding, and undergraduate college level programs that use small numbers of animals. It is thus absurd to allege that "more than 20 million animals in laboratories don`t even have the right to food and water," as a coalition of animal rights groups formed by the ARDF called the Working Group to Preserve the AWA put it.

What`s more, regulations notwithstanding, it serves no one`s interest to mistreat research animals. After all, stress upsets their immune, nervous and cardiovascular systems, thus skewing experimental results. Moreover, many mice now used in labs are "knockout mice," meaning a specific gene has been deleted or knocked out. Expensive and valuable, these mice take about 24 months to develop and play a key role in decoding the function of the specific genes (scientists compare the physiologic function of genetically intact mice with ones missing a given gene). To ensure their health and longevity, such mice are housed under germ-free conditions in climate controlled rooms, given optimal nutrition and ready access to veterinarians.

Since America`s lab rodents are already being treated well -- an ARDF spokesman even admitted to USA Today that most research institutions already meet PHS standards -- what`s driving the animal right`s groups? Answer: elimination of all living animals from experiments by pressing for regulations that will raise the cost of doing research. The campaign to put rats, mice and birds under the AWA is not about their protection, it is a cynical ploy to liberate animals, no matter the toll on medical inquiry and, ultimately, on human suffering and disease.

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