Award winning reporting on monkey research to test a Covid-19 vaccine

November 22nd 2021
Professor Christopher Petkov
& Renée Hartig, PhD

This article is a part of our series on #MPAR and the animal research required for vaccine development to fight Covid-19 and other diseases.

Maartje Bakker, a journalist from the Netherlands, has won a prestigious science journalism award from the Kavli Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Vaccine development and testing requires animal research. In the Netherlands as in other countries, vaccines for diseases including but not limited to Covid-19 may require testing in monkeys before they are deemed safe for further development and use with humans.

Image of the two monkeys that the journalist followed throughout the study, mother Chips and daughter Dip. Research in monkeys is required for human vaccine development including for Covid-19.

The journalist Maartje, as part of Dutch news source De Volksrand, was given full access to the testing of a Covid-19 vaccine in monkeys at the Biomedical Primate Research Center (BPRC) in Rijswijk, the Netherlands, during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. The journalist interviewed the animal caretakers, researchers and ethicists involved, and followed two monkeys named Chips and Dip throughout the vaccine testing including the completion of the research with their euthanasia.

The touching article, pictures and movies are available here in full. The writing is in Dutch, but most current internet browsers can translate the text to English or another language. For example on Google Chrome the translate button at the top right corner of the browser readily translated the text from Dutch to English for me.

Dekker helps to take care of the monkeys in the study, including this one after being sedated for the vaccination. Dekker is nervous about the intentions of the journalist because of regular activist harassment and intimidation, but, like the other staff at BPRC, believes it is important to tell the public about their work with monkeys and how it helps people.

Maartje’s reporting is thorough from Day 0, March of 2020, when the two monkeys are vaccinated (a time when a new variant of Covid-19 had spread to the Netherlands), until the completion of the study months later in May 2020. The reporting is weaved with the day-to-day events in the lives of the monkeys, the researchers and their caretakers as well as events in the Netherlands during the pandemic.

“Every BPRC employee knows the stories from the past, about colleagues who were chased all the way to their home by activists. Then suddenly a plush monkey hung from a tree in the garden. The windows were smeared with tomato sauce. Or suddenly showed people with monkey masks behind the window. As a result, many employees are afraid to talk about their work. ‘For a long time I also pretended that there were two people with my name’, says Verstrepen. “One who did monkey experiments and another who wrote columns for the local paper.” Yet Verstrepen has already decided that it had to be over with those two personalities. “We don’t do anything here that isn’t allowed,” she says. ‘Everything has a purpose.’” – quote from Bakker’s article

The vaccine used in the research contributed to the development of the Janssen vaccine now available to fight Covid-19 in people, one of the few single dose vaccines available. In the Netherlands, as in other countries, all such animal research is strictly regulated and requires approvals by regulatory bodies before any of the work can commence. Study approvals depend on understanding the scientific or societal benefits of the research in relation to the harms to the animals by the research. Maartje walks the reader through this regulatory process and interviews people involved in it.

At the beginning of the research study after the vaccination, Chips, Dip and the other monkeys, some of which have received the vaccine and some which have not, are first assessed for their bodily reactions to the vaccine to understand the possible side effects the vaccine might have.

Then, a few months later the monkeys are challenged with the Covid-19 virus to see whether the vaccine is effective in those that have been vaccinated relative to those that were not. This is difficult to watch as it shows the reality of some of the animals getting sick with Covid-19 and the candidness of the reporting that garnered this journalistic award. The study completes with the animals being deeply anesthetized and their death. Maartje explains why the research requires this as the completion, which relates to the need for the lungs to be directly examined for Covid-19 pathology. As the journalist notes, post-mortem pathology such as this also helped to identify that Covid-19 had an impact on the brain. Examination of post-mortem brain tissue showed abnormal ‘bodies’ like those found in dementia in the brains of the Covid-19 infected monkeys.

“Verstrepen, a 50-year-old virologist with wildly spiky blond hair, notices in her daily life that people react differently than before, when she says that she works with laboratory animals and that she is trying to find a vaccine against Covid. For the first time in her life she is told: how good. ‘My neighbor suddenly said: if you’re busy, you should say so, and I’ll cook for you,’ she says. “I’ve never seen that before.”” – quote from Bakker’s article

The study found that the animals that were vaccinated were better protected against Covid-19. This, and other monkey research, led to several publications in journals such as Science and Nature in the middle of 2020 during the pandemic. The work contributed to the development of vaccines that are now being used to protect people throughout the world from the potentially lethal effects of the Covid-19 virus.

What is also remarkable about the journalistic reporting is the commitment to regularly report on each key stage of the research throughout the three months in which it was conducted. Maartje also provides interviews and photographs of the facilities, the monkeys, the caretakers, scientists and virologists involved in the research.

The journalist puts all of this into context with animal activist challenges that continue to make it difficult for the research staff to do their jobs. They also note the unpredictability of the arbitrarily changing Dutch political policy that initially aimed to phase out animal research by certain percentages before the pandemic – that is until the politicians realized that more animal research is needed to fight diseases, not limited to Covid-19.

A lung lavage shows how much Covid-19 virus is in the lungs after vaccination. Post-mortem pathology examination of tissue such as the lungs and brain are critical for understanding whether the vaccine is likely to work in humans. Animal research like this also helped to identify brain ‘bodies’ caused by Covid-19 viral infection, like those found in dementia. This shows the dangers of Covid-19 infection not only for the lungs but also for the brain. The research and journalistic reporting highlights the critical importance of developing vaccines and treatments reliant on animal research to fight Covid-19 and other diseases.

We at Speaking of Research commend the outstanding reporting of Maartje Bakker and the BPRC research organization that took the risk to let a reporter have free access. You can clearly see in some of the pictures that the staff are nervous about the intentions of the reporter, but want to show the work that they are doing and why it is important. By approaching this with candidness and care, rather than sensationalism and an agenda to end all animal research without considering any of the arguments for it, the journalist provides a powerful and deeply heartfelt example of the realities of conducting research with monkeys that is all too often mischaracterized by activists.

This type of scientific openness and transparency is, however, not unusual. Transparency about animal research is becoming much more common. A number of institutions conducting animal research have created virtual tours of their animal, including monkey, research and facilities which are available online for everyone to view. As some examples, see the award winning Cambridge and Oxford Universities’ and other major institutions’ 360° lab tours of animal research and facilities.

As Maartje aptly notes in the article, “the time must pass when monkey research is shrouded in secrecy.”.

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