In recent days, several politically charged news stories and social media posts have surfaced in regards to infectious disease research conducted in dogs. Sadly, in many instances, incorrect, incomplete and/or misleading information is being circulated, leading to significant public confusion. Americans for Medical Progress has constructed the following Q&A in order to provide accurate answers to some of the most common questions that have been raised.
What is this all about?
Recent news stories and social media posts have focused on a small collection of studies to combat two separate tropical diseases. Each of these serious diseases threaten both human and animal health. One disease that is being studied is called leishmaniasis. The other is called lymphatic filariasis.
What is leishmaniasis?
Leishmaniasis is caused by a microscopic parasite named Leishmania infantum. Symptoms for infected patients might include skin sores, fever and the swelling of internal organs. In severe cases, the condition can be fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leishmaniasis infections can be found in approximately 90 countries throughout the tropics, subtropics and southern Europe. In Northern Africa, where the disease is commonly found, leishmaniasis mainly impacts children under the age of five. Leishmaniasis also poses a threat to U.S. troops and other personnel, as well as U.S. military dogs, living in areas where the disease is endemic.
Leishmaniasis is spread by sand flies which serve as the vector (or mode of transportation) for the Leishmania infantum parasite. Domesticated dogs often serve as a natural reservoir for the disease, meaning that human infections can occur when the parasite is passed from infected dogs to humans via sand fly bites.
What is lymphatic filariasis?
The second disease referenced in recent news stories and social media posts is lymphatic filariasis (LF), also known as elephantiasis.
Like leishmaniasis, LF is also caused by a parasite transmitted by insects. In this case, the parasite is spread by mosquitos. It is a dangerous, worm-like organism that can cause disease in both humans and dogs. It is the second leading cause of human disability in impacted countries. Those who are disfigured are frequently unable to work because of their disability.
Can these diseases be prevented with vaccines?
No approved vaccine currently exists to prevent leishmaniasis or lymphatic filariasis infections. However, efforts to develop vaccines to protect both humans and dogs are underway. A brief summary of some of this research can be found below.
Why must dogs be studied for leishmaniasis research?
Dogs are involved in leishmaniasis research because they are a natural reservoir for the disease. The parasite also threatens the health of dogs. The Leishmania infantum parasite often spreads when a sand fly first bites an infected dog followed by a human. The presence of parasite-infected dogs allows the disease to persist and infect additional humans and animals.
Why must dogs be studied for lymphatic filariasis research?
As mentioned previously, the parasite behind LF can cause serious disease in both humans and dogs. As a result, both species benefit from animal-based studies.
What is the purpose of the research mentioned in news stories and social media posts?
Recent news stories and social media posts focus on a combination of three research projects attempting to combat both leishmaniasis and lymphatic filariasis. Two of these studies were supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. However, the third was not.
In one study – leishmaniasis research that has incorrectly been attributed to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – scientists were seeking to better understand how the Leishmania infantum bacteria is transmitted between dogs and humans. This information can now be used to develop strategies to prevent parasitic infections in both humans and animals, better control the disease in impacted species, prevent disease-related disabilities and save lives.
A second study – which was financially supported by the NIAID – is assisting in the development of a leishmaniasis vaccine aimed at preventing disease in both dogs and humans. In this NIAID-study, twelve dogs were immunized with an experimental vaccine at the Pasteur Institute of Tunis. The dogs were then let out in an enclosed open space during the day, during sand fly season in an area of Tunisia where canine leishmaniasis can be commonly found. The goal of the research was to determine if the experimental vaccine prevented the dogs from becoming infected in a natural setting. Because leishmaniasis is commonly transmitted from dogs to humans and because the disease threatens the health of dogs, canines were logically necessary for this research aimed at reducing the spread of this serious disease. At the same time, the project was designed to ensure the involved animals experienced no discomfort.
The third research project is aimed at combating lymphatic filariasis. That study took place at the University of Georgia and it was also supported by the NIAID. This research focuses on a vaccine candidate which could potentially be used to prevent lymphatic filariasis in humans, as well as other parasitic infections, including heartworm, in dogs. Because lymphatic filariasis infections pose serious risks to both humans and dogs, studies in canines are both logical and necessary.
Did the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases fund the research shown in images being distributed by news outlets and social media posts
No. The images of beagles in several news stories and social media posts were taken from an article published by the medical journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases in July 2021. However, the manuscript mistakenly stated that financial support for the research had been provided by the National Institutes of Health. Neither the NIAID nor any other institute within the NIH supported this specific research project.
Here’s a link to a correction posted by the journal. A screenshot of the statement can be found below.
Question: Do dogs involved in research frequently have their vocal cords removed?
A vocal cordectomy, also known as debarking or bark softening, is occasionally performed on dogs living in either a home or research setting. It is a surgical procedure, performed by a veterinarian on an anesthetized animal, where tissue is removed from the vocal cords to permanently reduce the volume of its vocalizations. The surgery does not hurt the animals. In research settings, it may be used where numerous dogs are present. This procedure is done to reduce noise, which is not only stressful to the animals but can also reach decibel levels that exceed OSHA allowable limits for people and can lead to hearing loss.
Question: When it comes to animal research in the United States, are there any regulations or policies in place to ensure the animals are well cared for?
There are extensive regulations and measures in place in the United States to ensure the ethical treatment of animals involved in health research. These include, but are not limited to: a large collection of animal welfare laws known as the Animal Welfare Act, USDA oversight via unannounced inspections of research facilities, strict guidelines for federally funded research, onsite veterinary oversight and frequent accreditation requirements.
In specific regard to NIH-funded research, animals are protected by laws, regulations and policies to ensure the smallest possible number of subjects and the greatest commitment to their welfare. Institutions that receive research funds, including those located in other countries, must conduct animal-involved studies in accordance with the Public Health Service Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. The proposed use of animals in research is evaluated during peer review for both contract and grant proposals and animals used in research are to be provided with appropriate anesthesia and veterinary care. The principles for what is — and is not — allowed are governed both by regulations administered by the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare and the grantee institution’s animal care and use committee (IACUC)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
This year’s BRAD celebration will take place on September 16th due to COVID-19. Of course, we’re talking about Biomedical Research Awareness Day, a popular annual event that honors the animals behind health research. It was created several years ago by one of our Hayre fellows.
For those of you who know a little bit about BRAD and want to learn more, the group Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIM&R) posted an informative article on their website this week.
Everyone involved in the health research process fully understands the important role animals play in the development of new and improved treatments and therapies. We also recognize there are various kinds of research. Some studies are designed to test new medications. Others expand our scientific knowledge and highlight promising new pathways for fighting disease.
But despite our extensive knowledge and experience with this topic, discussing our work with those outside the field can be daunting. We’ve all attended social gatherings and struggled to decide what to say when asked “What do you do for a living?”
In many cases, we respond with a generic (AKA safe) answer. “I’m a health researcher at company X,” or “I work in a lab at university Y.” And while we feel guilty for not sharing more, we’re also wary of getting into a heated discussion. Here’s the thing: The approach of providing a general response is convenient. But, it has not helped our cause.
According to recent polling data provided by Gallup, public support for animal-based studies continues to remain a serious concern. Data gathered in May 2021 shows that a little more than half of adults in the U.S. (52 percent) say they believe the use of animals in scientific research is morally acceptable. According to that same poll, 44 percent said they do not think it is acceptable. The most recent data from the Pew Research Center came in 2018 (notably, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak). That data suggested only 47 percent of Americans support animal research with 52 percent against it.
There is a silver lining buried within Pew’s polling data however. Those with an increased understanding of science or those who have accomplished higher education levels are more likely to support animal studies. That being the case, it is our shared responsibility as members of the scientific community to increase public understanding of science.
But how does one begin? How can you develop an elevator speech for discussing what you do for a living? Here are a few tips.
Consider Your Audience
Before discussing your work with someone outside the field, consider what you know about the person across from you. Are they somewhat familiar with health science or the research process? Have they been personally impacted by serious illness? Do you know if they likely have biases for or against research? If you work for a well-known company, how has news coverage influenced their opinions of the organization?
One good way to start is with a question. “I work for company X. Are you familiar with what we do?” Then, let their answer inform what you say next. Provide background as needed and correct or acknowledge any challenging information they share.
Also, consider whether there are parallels that you can draw between the listener’s occupation or experiences and the science.
Start with the Goal
Once you have a better feeling for your listener’s background, explain in general terms what your lab is studying and why. Tell your story using the “inverted pyramid,” the same style adopted by journalists. Start with a general headline, then provide more details. This approach is a good one because it gives the listener an opportunity right away to understand the overall goal of your work. You can then go on to explain how animals are required to seek answers to the important scientific questions being asked. Using the inverted pyramid structure to explain what you do also allows you to gauge the response of your listener and address questions or concerns in a logical order.
Like any other complex field, the science community loves acronyms. But remember, shorthand speak means nothing to the general public. Even common acronyms like “NIH” might require some background information. “Are you familiar with the National Institutes of Health? They are the federal agency that determines what research should be publicly funded.”
In addition to avoiding acronyms, be sure to define medical terms and when in doubt, ask questions. “Do you know about…?”
Define Basic vs. Applied Science if Needed
It’s also important to remember that many Americans do not understand the research process. For instance, some might believe health research and product safety testing are the same thing. This is why it is important to define your research if needed. If you work in a basic science lab studying weight regulation, explain it. “We are trying to learn the mechanism in the brain that triggers feelings of hunger in order to assist those combatting life-threatening weight issues. The findings in our lab might one-day be used to develop new medications.”
Remember, It’s a Conversation, Not a Speech
One common error is to forget that you are taking part in a conversation and not delivering a monologue. Don’t go too fast. Pause and allow the person you are speaking with to ask questions. Good communicators realize it’s not a race to get your message out. Instead, it’s an exchange of thoughts, ideas, questions and answers.
It’s OK to Share Feelings
For decades, those involved in animal studies were advised to keep their emotions to themselves. We’ve heard research opponents make emotional arguments. We then, responded with logic. The problem with that approach is that for many, animal studies are an emotional topic. And this is not news to those who work in labs. You recognize the importance of the questions being asked and the need for animal research. At the same time, you understand there is a tradeoff. It’s completely natural and human to acknowledge this. Too often, members of the public incorrectly assume researchers do not care about animals. Therefore, we must be willing to share our conflicted feelings when we have them. We must also highlight there are systems in place to ensure the benefits of research projects outweigh any negative impacts on animals.
Don’t Be Afraid of Tough Questions
Some members of the research community may be completely comfortable talking about what they do. It’s the questions they fear. Do animals die as part of your research? How can you do that? Do you feel guilty?
These kinds of questions are actually quite rare. However, if they come up, acknowledge what was asked and then respond. Also, if a loaded word or phrase is used, avoid repeating it. “Good question. Some animals need to be humanely euthanized as part of our work. Here’s why….” It’s completely OK to say things like “I would not do this if I did not recognize the need.”
Learn from Your Interactions…and Practice
Finally, learn from your previous discussions. Was there a phrase or word that generated a negative reaction? Why? Did I go too fast or make incorrect assumptions about the person I was speaking with? Think about what parts of the discussion seemed to resonate. Also, recognize that you are not trying to “convert” the listener. Instead, you are trying to help them understand what you do and why.
Finally, practice. Prepare with your partner, family members or even with your kids. By far, youngsters ask the toughest questions. If you can respond confidently to questions from an unfiltered ten-year-old, you can probably talk to just about anybody.
We all hate to see the recent surge of COVID-19 infections. But at the same time, vaccines are preventing cases and saving lives. And while it may take many months for COVID-19’s impacts to diminish, we hope you will AMP in educating the public about the critical role of animals in fighting this deadly pandemic.
Americans for Medical Progress recently unveiled our COVID-19 poster series. Here they are below.
As you can see, the posters focus on four species: mice, monkeys, hamsters and ferrets and the pivotal role of each of these amazing animals in the development of safe and effective vaccines and therapies.
We’ve received quite a few requests. Send in your order ASAP before we have to replenish supplies. You can order AMP’s complete COVID-19 poster series, or individual posters, at our website. Here’s a link. And if you can, please help us support the cost of these educational and informative materials.
Over the holiday weekend, The Buffalo News published an opinion article authored by Americans for Medical Progress. It highlights the many ways animal research “saved our skins” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic:
Here’s an excerpt:
Animal studies helped scientists develop safe and effective vaccines in record time. However, it may surprise many to learn that much of the research that laid the groundwork for these lifesaving shots did not take place in 2020.
Some of the biggest breakthroughs occurred several decades ago, in the 1990s. That’s when critical proof-of-concept studies in rodents demonstrated how snippets of messenger RNA (or mRNA) could be used to teach the body how to fight off infectious diseases. Why is this so exciting? Because one of the major benefits of mRNA-based vaccines is that they can be very quickly adapted to fight viruses, even emerging ones, like SARS-CoV-2. This is one of the reasons why the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were developed so rapidly. Shots are going into arms and countless lives are being saved daily thanks in great part to research in mice and rats three decades ago.
But that’s not all.
The full opinion article can be found at this link.
Sometimes research organizations assume expanding communications about animal research (aka increased transparency) will invite unwanted attention. However, this assumption rarely rings true. In fact, there are significant downsides to minimal engagement about the use of animals in health studies. Doing so provides animal research opponents with the increased ability to define animal studies and many times, mislead the public.
AMP believes both public and private science organizations need to be the leading authority on animal studies. This is necessary in order to prevent increasing efforts to hamper or end critical health studies altogether. Furthermore, we believe one of the best ways for research organizations to reduce risk and build public support is to strategically employ advocacy and learning initiatives. Below are a few suggestions:
Launch Dedicated Webpages
Several institutions that have been targeted in the past have learned comprehensive communications to proactively address activist claims are helpful. For example, many institutions have launched webpages aimed at explaining and illustrating the important role of animals in research. As a result, these organizations have witnessed a reduction in animal activism successes. Here are some items to consider for webpages focused on the need for animal studies:
- General information about the role of animal research in improving the health of humans and animals alike.
- Examples of diseases/discovery areas being researched by the institution where the use of animals is necessary.
- A continually expanding list of university press releases where advancements feature the use of animals.
- Details about the many systems in place to ensure animals receive high quality care.
- Images that help illustrate the organization’s commitment to the welfare of research animals.
AMP can provide several examples of effective websites created to communicate about the need for animal studies. Contact us if we can be of assistance.
AMP recently learned of this news story published in The Dominion Post, the Morgantown, West Virginia newspaper. The article demonstrates the deep commitment of universities like West Virginia University to the welfare of their research animals while studies are taking place and even afterwards.
Thanks to reporter Gabriella Brown and The Dominion Post for allowing us to reprint this outstanding story.
Migrating South for Retirement: WVU Research Pigeon Moved to Florida Sanctuary
by Gabriella Brown, The Dominion Post – May 2, 2021
Mr. Grey the retired white-crowned research pigeon is living his life in paradise after having a bit of help making the journey south for retirement.
“I wanted to do something special for him,” said Samantha Glaspell, a registered veterinary technician at West Virginia University. “I used to work with a local humane society, so it’s always a good story for them to get a different path of life.”
According to a new 120-page report from the World Health Organization, the novel coronavirus likely spread to humans from an animal. But experts say the topic requires more study. The new report also says the disease likely started to spread amongst humans no more than a month or two before it was identified in December of 2019.
As for the source of the infections, no conclusive answer has been found as of yet, but the following possibilities were listed in order of likelihood, according to the international team of investigators:
- Direct zoonotic spillover is considered to be a possible-to-likely pathway;
- Introduction through an intermediate host is considered to be a likely to very likely pathway;
- Introduction through cold/ food chain products is considered a possible pathway;
- Introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.
A combination antibody therapy developed by Eli Lilly to fight COVID-19 has received emergency use authorization by the FDA. The therapy involves two antibodies, bamlanivimab and etesevimab. Giving these to patients reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 70%.
Lilly claims 100,000 doses are ready for patient use and an additional 150,000 doses will be available throughout the first quarter. More information can be found in this news story.
Meanwhile, the claim that the novel coronavirus escaped from a lab is “very unlikely” according to a team of experts appointed by the World Health Organization. The group spent several weeks in the Chinese city of Wuhan seeking clues about the origins of COVID-19. (more…)
The new clip is titled “How Animal Research Led to Two COVID-19 Vaccines in Record Time”. We’ve uploaded it to both YouTube and Vimeo. You can find it on AMP’s pages at those two websites. Or, you could simply find them in AMP’s COVID-19 resources. Here’s the link.
We invite you to share this latest video via social media or embed it at your own website.