Without animal experiments there would be no COVID-19 vaccine: animal testing is essential for medical research. A ban on testing - even a gradual phase-out - would be extremely damaging for research policy, writes Detlef Günther.
The Swiss National Council is currently debating the popular initiative for a ban on experiments on animals and humans. It is also dealing with two minority motions from the Preliminary Consultation Committee. The first proposal calls for an amendment to the Federal Constitution to ensure controversial animal testing is progressively phased out, but with an exemption for clinical trials. The second motion calls for the bill to be referred back to the Committee so it can draw up a counterproposal at the legislative level.
The suggestion that scientific research is possible without experiments on animals fails to recognise the many advances in medicines and vaccines where animal testing has played a key role. Recent experiences of the coronavirus pandemic that has shaken our world for over a year now corroborate this. Never before have science and the research industry been under such intense pressure to tackle a previously unknown virus and develop effective treatments at lightning speed. And it should be clear to everyone standing in line for their long-awaited jab: vaccination is only a viable option thanks to animal testing.
Understanding complex processes
Research is still a long way from being able to test vaccines thoroughly on cells grown in the laboratory to ensure they are effective and safe enough to be administered directly to human subjects. Although it is possible to grow cells and organoids - clusters of cells with a similar structure to internal organs - in the laboratory, at present they still only act as models for real biological processes. If the goal is to study an organism in its entire complexity, animal experiments will continue to be essential in future as well, if we are to fully understand the immune system, for example. Without animal testing it is highly unlikely that the cause of AIDS would have been discovered. To come back to the concrete example of the COVID-19 vaccination: with all the vaccines now approved, animal experiments were necessary to ensure they elicit the intended immune response, to establish the correct dosage and to identify potential side effects.
At ETH as well, research focusing specifically on COVID-19 has been going on since March 2020 and has involved experiments on mice. To give an example: the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences is working with the Paul Scherrer Institute on the development of a radioligand. Thanks to extremely low radiation levels, this substance can be visualised in an organism using an imaging technique, positron emission tomography (PET). This makes it possible to study how the now notorious spike protein of the COVID-19 virus binds to the ACE2 receptor in the lung tissue, allowing the virus to find its way into the body.1 This PET radioligand makes it easier to diagnose patients infected with COVID-19 and allows treatment to be tailored individually to prevent the course of the disease becoming too severe.
Animal testing must be justified
Opponents of animal testing often choose not to fully acknowledge the high standards that quite rightly apply in Switzerland. Our animal housing facilities and laboratories, such as those in the Phenomics Center on the university’s Hönggerberg campus, are state of the art and managed by highly qualified personnel. Researchers conducting animal experiments must undergo mandatory training and are fully aware of their great responsibility in carrying out their work with animals in their care.
Switzerland’s strict animal welfare regulations not only require every experiment to be justified: they must be approved by the cantonal authorities. The rules also oblige researchers to replace these experiments with alternative research methods wherever possible, to reduce the number of animals used for testing and to minimise the stress or discomfort to animals, an approach known as the 3R principles (Replace, Reduce, Refine). ETH Zurich is a member of the Swiss 3R Competence Centre and is committed to consistently promoting these principles. As ETH Vice President for Research, I am delighted that the Federal Council wants to promote the 3R principles further with a new national research programme.
Both the popular initiative and the two motions regarding a ban on animal testing are motivated by the understandable intention to improve animal welfare. But both approaches - whether a full or phased ban - would be a major setback for research policy. They would make it more difficult to continue developing medicines to treat diseases and cause unsurmountable problems for society just at the point where it faces enormous healthcare challenges.