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Crisis plans help animal facilities respond to the coronavirus pandemic

Updated: May 1, 2020

Andreas Lengeling, the animal research and welfare officer for the Max Planck Society, in Germany, looks at the steps many institutions have taken to ensure the well-being of their research animals.

In the last few weeks, as the threat from Covid-19 has grown, there have been several reports raising concerns that animal facilities would be forced to euthanise research animals that are not of immediate need for scientific projects. A report by David Grimm, for Science, highlighted the situation in major universities in the US.

The animals mainly concerned are mice, which are the most widely used animals in research facilities around the world. The problem is due to the extreme shortage of animal caretakers in facilities and the disruption to research while universities wind down their research activities in response to the crisis.

Organisations opposed to animal research, such as PETA, have taken this up and distributed news about a widespread ‘killing spree’.

However, this view is very different from my experience. In every well-managed animal facility around the world, the staff that work there are highly passionate about the animals they care for day in and day out, if need be 24/7, and always try to do the best job possible to serve the needs of the animals under their care.

Therefore, a comment made to Science by Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president of PETA, about “choosing the path of convenience and simply killing animals” is cynical at best.

Adapting to a crisis

While the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly a big challenge and a stress test for animal research facilities worldwide, a key management tool has always been the setup of disaster and emergency plans. These plans are an integral part of an appropriate risk management that defines how research facilities respond to natural and other catastrophic disasters. Of course, such disaster and contingency plans which have been developed in good faith in normal times for differing scenarios, need an urgent update and revision when an actual crisis is foreseeable or when it actually hits.

Nobody, even the most knowledgeable experts, could have predicted the scale and consequences of this unprecedented pandemic, so undoubtedly difficult decisions will have to made by labs. However, like almost all organisations and companies that are exposed to the current risk, animal facilities around the world have done their best to quickly adapt their contingency plans to the current situation to save the lives of millions of research animals.

For example, at Max Planck Society institutions, additional measures that have been widely included in response to the Covid-19 crisis in emergency plans are:

  • An ordered and structured winding down of research activities to save time in preparation for possible staff shortages. These have included the suspension of scientific services of animal facility staff, stopping of larger breeding programs, and the conversion of the facility to providing basic animal and veterinary care.

  • Stockpiling of all necessary consumables such as special diets, regular feed, bedding, and veterinary drugs for standard treatments. Many facilities have still been able to order stock that will last for at least 10-12 weeks without dependence on ongoing deliveries for standard consumables. Here, the remaining time, until the first local Covid-19 cases appear, has been well used for preparation of additional stocks.

  • Most facilities have made great efforts to design new innovative rota schemes for their staff. Carefully thought out measures such as the physical separation and distancing of staff during routine working procedures have been developed to minimise any potential exposure to the virus between independently acting teams of animal caretakers, animal technicians and veterinarians. If need be, scientists from the local institutes and universities with experience in animal handling have been put on reserve to be drafted into staff rota schemes when the need arises.

  • Where the remaining time has allowed to focus efforts on an ordered cryoconservation and bioarchiving of sperm/embryos of valuable zebrafish and rodent mutant lines, this work has been undertaken with a high priority.

In this terrible and extraordinary time, the world has hopefully learned one thing. Solving this crisis depends highly on scientific understanding of the biology of coronavirus, its mechanisms of cellular entry, distribution in organs and tissues, the induced pathologies that cause disease and finally the protective immune response that will allow us to evict this pathogen from the infected body.

Here, fundamental opponents of animal research need to be asked how they expect to find answers to these problems without the use of animals. Cutting-edge cell culture technologies such as lung organoids derived from human stem cells are certainly very valuable for initial drug screens aimed to block viral entry or virus replication. However, unfortunately these don’t replicate the cells of the immune system that are vital to control the virus infection and underlying inflammation responses. Alone for that reason, research in appropriate animal models of Covid-19 is critically needed.

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