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Commentary: Work with animals helps develop vaccines against coronavirus

Scientists are working on dozens of potential treatments and vaccines for the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Virtually all of them have one thing in common — they’re the product of animal research.

Indeed, the race to beat COVID-19 shows how critical animal research is to medical progress.

Consider how mRNA-1273, the potential vaccine furthest along in the development process, came to be. Scientists at Cambridge, Mass.-based Moderna originally developed it to inoculate against the coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. The vaccine has shown promise in mice and other animal models.

Or take the potential vaccine from Pennsylvania-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals. Mice and guinea pigs that received it have produced both antibodies and T cells against the coronavirus. The research team is also investigating the vaccine’s impact in monkeys. Studies that test whether animals who have been inoculated are susceptible to infection by the coronavirus will follow.

Animal research is particularly crucial to the development of vaccines. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said in a White House briefing, scientists can “get a good feel … in animal models” for whether a potential vaccine will protect someone from a dangerous pathogen or risk enhancing infection.

Animal models are also helping scientists repurpose existing drugs to fight the novel coronavirus. Gilead Sciences’ antiviral remdesivir has “shown promise in animal models for treating Middle East respiratory syndrome,” according to the NIAID.

New York-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals is developing monoclonal antibodies with the help of humanized mice models. APEIRON Biologics is studying the effect of APN01, a recombinant human angiotensin-converting enzyme treatment, on laboratory mice.

Other scientists are investigating the novel coronavirus by observing it in animal models. Chinese researchers have discovered that monkeys that had recovered from infection with the novel coronavirus showed no signs of reinfection when exposed a second time. This discovery could have vital implications for vaccine design.

People who have contracted COVID-19 are benefiting from several therapies and treatments that are the product of animal research. Take extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which uses an artificial lung to provide oxygenated blood to patients with critical respiratory issues — now including those with COVID-19. A University of Michigan researcher first developed the technique in sheep.

Animal research may also help solve the shortage of ventilators. A research team at Auburn University turned a continuous positive airway pressure machine, a device used to treat sleep apnea, into an emergency ventilator for a 200-pound goat. The lung capacity of goats this size is similar to that of humans.

Imagine a world where this research came to a halt at the behest of animal rights activists. People hospitalized with COVID-19 would not receive the care they need. And there’d be no chance of developing a vaccine to protect against the virus in the future.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Albert Sabin, who developed the oral polio vaccine, wrote, “My own experience of over 60 years in biomedical research amply demonstrated that without the use of animals and of human beings, it would have been impossible to acquire the important knowledge needed to prevent much suffering and premature death not only among humans but also among animals.”

That’s as true today as it was in Sabin’s era. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most serious threat to public health in decades. We must make use of every tool at our disposal to beat it. Animal research is among the most powerful of those tools.

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Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. This piece was originally published by the Asbury Park Press.

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