March 11, 2021, Allyson J. Bennett, PhD
Recent media coverage of Catholic leaders’ endorsement of COVID vaccines provides an interesting model for thinking about public information and decisions concerning the use of nonhuman animals in research and testing for medical products and treatments. First, the situation illustrates why accurate information and understanding of how medicines are developed and what is involved (e.g., fetal tissues, humans, other animals) is essential to informed decisions by people who want to weigh competing personal values, beliefs, and health needs. Second, the events and media coverage highlight the role of leadership and the expectation of thoughtful deliberation and public statements to inform those with shared beliefs. In the case of Catholics, there is a clear expectation that the religious leaders will advise and such advice is newsworthy, as reflected in the many media stories.
Controversy in a nutshell
The controversy, apparently now resolved, occured when a handful of US bishops advocated for members of their faith to act according to their beliefs even when the consequence could jeopardize their health and ability to benefit from medical advances. Despite a clear message from the Pope and many Catholic leaders that Catholics should receive COVID vaccines to protect their own and others lives, a few US Catholic bishops recently made headlines arguing against the Janssen vaccine (a.k.a., Johnson and Johnson) on the basis of its use of cell lines derived from fetal tissue. These bishops noted that a COVID vaccine was made possible through use of cell lines derived from fetal tissue resulting from abortions decades ago. Given opposition to abortion, these church leaders urged Catholics to refuse the vaccine, though only if other vaccine choices were possible.
Other church leaders, including the Pope, conditioned their advice in a way that allowed parishioners to accept the vaccine. They reasoned that although the vaccine’s development was linked to abortion and fetal tissue, the critical considerations were that: 1) the decision to abort was not made for the purpose of producing fetal cell lines; 2) the action occurred long before the vaccine was developed; and 3) taking the vaccine would not directly drive decisions about abortion. In other words, despite the fact that the vaccine and associated health benefits were made possible by an action that Catholics consider immoral, it would be acceptable to benefit because the choice was made by someone else for a different purpose. Overall, both the bishops and the pope encouraged Catholics to weigh the threat of COVID, available vaccines, and fetal tissue in a way that prioritized their survival and global health.
The core question asked by Catholics—does this product align with my beliefs?—may also be asked of those who oppose the use of nonhuman animals in research and testing to ensure the safety and efficacy of drugs, vaccines, and medical devices prior to their use in humans. This is not a new question. In fact, ten years ago Dr. Dario Ringach posed the same one, arguing that opponents of animal research should refuse medical treatment. Last week Dr. Michele Basso wrote about exactly this, pointing to the hypocrisy of a Los Angeles based anti-animal research campaigner who posted a photograph celebrating the fact she had benefited from the COVID vaccine.
Ringach’s post emphasizes a key consideration. Whereas the role of fetal tissue in development of the vaccine does not create an ongoing and active need for abortion, public demand for vaccines derived and tested through nonhuman animal research and testing does support and perpetuate an active and ongoing practice. In turn, he argues that by accepting the benefits of animal research or testing, those opposed to such use of animals are hypocritical. And further, that: “Ethical principles are supposed to guide one’s moral judgments. If you have strong moral principles you want to impart on the rest of society, you better be the first to be prepared to accept the consequences of such principles.”
Development of the COVID vaccines depended on animal research and testing. How should individuals opposed to animal research and testing reconcile beliefs and benefits?
The very public discussion of religion and fetal tissue contrasts with relatively little public focus on how consideration of beliefs about nonhuman animal research and testing should inform individuals’ choices about benefiting from the vaccine. Among many reasons for the difference, one may be lack of information and clear connection of the role of animal research and testing in vaccine development.
The reason that there is a COVID vaccine is that scientific understanding of immunology, mRNA, and viruses provided the foundation. In addition, over a decade of animal research into similar coronaviruses, provided the foundational aspects for development of a vaccine, while the basic safety data that allowed for approval of the injection of vaccine into the first human volunteers depended on nonhuman animal research and testing. Given that, should it not be the case that individuals opposed to the use of animals in research and testing live their belief by refusing to benefit from new treatments and scientific knowledge?
Informed decisions depend on accurate information
How can these contradictory views be resolved? Perhaps in a way similar to fetal tissue. The bishops and pope were able to identify fetal tissue as part of the development of the COVID vaccine. In doing so they could connect their beliefs to their actions. They could also clearly determine that the abortion was in the distant past and taking the vaccine would not actively support continuation of the practice.
In the case of animal research and testing it should also be the case that individuals have the right and responsibility to make informed decisions. Doing so depends, however, on being able to determine how animal research and animal testing contributed to the development or evaluation of products that are approved for human use. The same applies to products humans choose to use for veterinary and health treatments for their companion animals.
Speaking of Research, along with others, have previously called for drugs, vaccines, and medical devices to be properly labeled in a way that clearly indicates the role of animal research and testing in their development.
In 2012 we offered a proposal for the labeling of medicines, asking: “Shouldn’t the public be entitled to know where their medicines come from? We called on pharmaceutical companies, including those that produce veterinary medicines, scientific research institutions, medical charities, and federal agencies across the globe to advance policies and practices that will more clearly provide patients and consumers with the information that is needed to make decisions in accord with their beliefs.
The current situation underscores the need for better labeling and education about drug and medical products’ development and testing. One could imagine any number of ways to do this from inserting information in advertisements to developing a symbol system that indicates the role of nonhuman animal research or testing. In the case of COVID vaccine, Catholic leaders did not—to our knowledge—question whether fetal tissue was involved. The role of fetal tissue was a known fact and publicly conveyed. In fact, some noted the ubiquity of the cell line. For example, the statement by a group of eight Catholic scholars acknowledged that: “the cell line is so common for testing that ‘the great majority of processed/packaged food products available for sale in the United States are likely to contain ingredients produced or tested’ with it.” In earlier stages of the race to develop a vaccine, Catholic leaders are also on record urging governments, pharmaceutical companies, and scientists to avoid use of fetal cell lines. Ultimately, however, their arguments did not revolve around whether fetal cells were used or whether there are scientific or medical alternatives to develop and test the vaccine. Rather, the arguments shifted to the more practical matter of saving lives in a pandemic.
In the case of animal research and testing the connection between medical products and the use of animals is often not made clear. Drug companies, for example, do not often advertise the simple fact that their products depend upon scientific knowledge gained from studies of nonhuman animals. Nor do they tend to acknowledge the animals used in safety testing prior to human clinical trials. Media coverage of new breakthroughs, drugs, and treatment may also omit any mention of the animal research or testing that was involved—for an example, we need only look as far as last week’s media coverage of the 2021 Brain Prize.
What happens in the absence of unequivocal labels, widespread dissemination of facts, and pharmaceutical company acknowledgement of the role of nonhuman animal research and testing in their product development? Foremost, people choosing to benefit from medicines lack full information to weigh and connect their beliefs with consequences. While groups and leaders opposed to animal research and testing could take on roles similar to the Catholic bishops, carefully considering the facts, identifying potential moral conflicts, and communicating with their followers about the moral implications of choices, that has not happened in any substantial and public way. Instead, some anti-animal research groups have taken advantage of a relative lack of information, education, and understanding to argue that the COVID vaccine was developed without animal research or testing, or that such work is unnecessary.
Clear labeling and public emphasis on the role of animal research and testing in development, safety, and efficacy would help address these problems. Public information campaigns could also highlight why “failed” drugs—those that do not pass animal tests and therefore are not given to humans—also protect humans. That is, drugs that could have gone on to harm people are taken out of the pipeline. These campaigns could also highlight that drugs that depended on decades of research in animals are sometimes repurposed to treat other diseases given the shared symptom, or biological mechanism overlap, of some diseases.
Connecting decisions to consequences at individual, national, and global levels
In light of national and international consideration of policies that either promote or jeopardize scientific research and the use of nonhuman animals in research and testing, it may also be useful to consider how better labeling of products could help inform citizens’ decisions. Science is global and new medicines benefit individuals around the world, regardless of the role their own country played in development, testing, and production of those medicines. This is true of the COVID vaccine. It is also true of basic scientific knowledge that has advanced understanding and informed treatment of diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes to Parkinson’s disease to organ transplants—for an indexed list see here.
Despite all of the advantages and societal good of global science and medicine, the international effort also means that local, national, and regional policy decisions can be disconnected from their consequence. For example, a country may “ban” forms of research or animal testing, but still benefit from the result of the same work that is conducted in another country. In these countries individual citizens may weigh whether to benefit from advances and products that arise from actions contradictory to their own moral beliefs, however, there is little evidence that this occurs or is formally addressed by national leaders.
As with labels for drugs and products that provide accurate information for thoughtful consideration and choices, national policies too should contain accurate information to inform individuals’ choices and understanding of the consequences of policy decisions. Providing people with clear information about where their medications, safe vaccines, scientific advances come from is essential to informing their choices and ability to link personal beliefs and values with decisions and consequences. On a national level, whether that consequence is permitting dependence on other countries or allowing a nation’s citizens to benefit from actions that are in opposition to national policy, it is contingent upon the nation’s leaders to acknowledge that decisions come with consequences.