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Most animal research suspended at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere amid coronavirus, raising questions about test subjects’ welfare

As the coronavirus pandemic forces researchers to suspend laboratory work, some animal test subjects could be euthanized.

At the Johns Hopkins University, for example, scientists recently were instructed to designate animals in their labs as “mission critical,” and told that others “may be euthanized as space/resources require.”

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So far, that hasn’t been necessary, said Eric Hutchinson, Hopkins director of research animal resources. Some mice have been euthanized because they lack a gene being studied in an experiment, he said. If more research was going on, those mice could have been used in another lab, he said.

Hopkins Medicine officials said veterinarians and other staff are focused on ensuring that animals “remain healthy and well cared for" as some lab experiments are paused.

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But animal rights advocates argue such decisions show animal experimentation isn’t always vital.

“The big question is, why are these animals who — when the experiments were approved by the school’s oversight body were deemed so imperative for human health — are now so easily discarded?” said PETA vice president of laboratory investigations Alka Chandna.

At research institutions around the country, on-campus research activity is being restricted to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. While students are taking classes remotely for the rest of the academic year, students, faculty and postdoctoral researchers focused on lab experiments are being asked to stay home instead and analyze data or write papers and grant proposals.

It’s unclear how many animals may be euthanized, or already have been. The most recent federal data available on animal research across the country shows that in fiscal year 2018, researchers used more than 780,000 animals as test subjects. That total includes primates, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, pigs, rabbits and sheep, but not rats or mice, which are used most commonly.

In Maryland, researchers used 32,418 animals that year, tenth-most among states.

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore, all but “a tiny fraction” of research has been suspended since Monday, spokesman Alex Likowski said. And he said he was not aware of any animals being euthanized.

University officials directed research teams to identify at least two people responsible for checking on animals “and providing for their welfare should further restrictions be required.”

Hopkins Medicine officials said they are asking researchers designated as essential personnel in their labs to ensure health and welfare of lab animals, as well as keep projects going, preserve data and protect equipment.

“We have many personnel, including veterinarians and other staff who are trained to care for our laboratory animals throughout this period," they said in a statement.

As research leaders consider which experiments can go forward, an important factor is whether suspending a project “would be a waste of animal lives or resources,” Hutchinson said. He added that, so far, he doesn’t expect a need for any animals to be euthanized as a result of any lack of space or resources.

Mice are the exception, he said. Scientists alter mice genomes and breed them to produce more mice with the same characteristics. Inevitably, some mice are born without the genotype desired for that particular experiment, and thus can’t be used in the project.

Typically, efforts would be made to find other researchers who could use the mice, but with the “vast majority” of animal research suspended, that isn’t possible, Hutchinson said. Mice are euthanized with carbon dioxide gas, which puts them to sleep and eventually suffocates them.

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Otherwise, researchers are being asked to delay all orders for new animal test subjects save for experiments focused on COVID-19, the infection caused by the new coronavirus.

Researchers say animal testing is critical in biomedical research as a way to learn about human biology. Stanford Medicine researchers say that mice and humans share 98% of their DNA and that because lab animals have shorter life cycles than humans, they can be observed throughout their life span and across generations.

Federal regulators also still require that new drugs be tested on animals before they are approved for use by humans. Other means of testing are being explored.

As the pandemic continues, the highest priority for medical researchers is any vaccine or treatment to combat the novel coronavirus.

Hutchinson suggested the pathogen is a prime example of the potential value of animal research. Genetically altered mice could help scientists learn the pathway through which the coronavirus attacks the body, and then use that information to develop a treatment or vaccine.

Animals typically are used in vaccine trials to make sure there are no toxic side-effects — and also because, to prove a vaccine is effective, subjects must be “challenged” with exposure to whatever pathogen they were created to offer protection from.

But, given the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic, one clinical trial for an experimental COVID-19 vaccine is going forward at the National Institutes of Health without the typical phase of animal testing.

PETA’s Chandna suggested that makes questions about the value of animal testing “even more valid and crucial.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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