Physicians Committee scientists had to act quickly this summer when the Taiwanese government announced plans to infect beagle puppies with rabies by exposing them to rabid ferret-badgers—a terribly cruel and crude approach to addressing a recent outbreak of the virus.
The deadly experiments were proposed to see whether the puppies could be infected with the specific rabies strain affecting the ferret-badgers. But associate director of laboratory medicine Kenneth Litwak, D.V.M., viral immunologist Sarah Cavanaugh, Ph.D., and toxicology research fellow Mei-Chun Lai, Ph.D., knew there was no question among rabies experts that the dogs would succumb to the virus.
The scientists immediately began a campaign condemning the experiments as cruel and unnecessary and calling for valid research conducted without harming animals. Worldwide media were also alerted to the Taiwanese Council of Agriculture’s (COA) plans to subject the puppies to paralysis, anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, muscle spasms, and death—all to show that the puppies could be infected with rabies.
Cruel and Unnecessary
The COA hoped that the world would turn a blind eye to the awful experiments. But the Physicians Committee’s message immediately began to spread across the globe.
“It sounds like a scene from a horror movie: injecting rabies into beagle puppies and watching as they succumb to one of the most miserable of diseases,” wrote Physicians Committee president Neal Barnard, M.D., in a blog on the Huffington Post on Aug. 30. “This isn’t fiction. It’s a cruel experiment that is real and imminent.” Dr. Barnard’s blog also asked that the COA take a very different approach and urge the citizens of Taiwan to vaccinate their dogs and other animals by World Rabies Day on Sept. 28.
As World Rabies Day approached, more than 85,000 people worldwide signed a Physicians Committee petition asking the COA to focus on an aggressive rabies vaccination campaign instead of moving forward with the misguided experiments.
Despite these efforts, the Taiwanese officials refused to back down. But Physicians Committee scientists weren’t backing down either.
Rabies Experts Speak Out
In continued and frequent communications with the COA and the media, Dr. Litwak pushed for in-vitro tests and other nonanimal methods that could quickly address the outbreak without harming any animals.
Dr. Litwak and the other Physicians Committee scientists were soon joined by a global team of rabies experts speaking out against experiments.
“A search of the biomedical literature reveals that dogs are no longer used for either vaccine development or academic experiments,” wrote Zhen F. Fu, D.V.M., Ph.D., a researcher in the field of rabies virus biology from the University of Georgia.
The rabies specialists called for proven in-vitro methods that would spare animals from the deadly and futile experiments.
“After decades of research, the infectivity of the rabies virus and the resulting course of infection in dogs have been well-established,” wrote Jaime E. Castellanos, Ph.D., head of the Institute of Virology at Universidad El Bosque in Bogota, Colombia. “Vaccine efficacy in canine populations…can be determined through a simple blood draw from previously vaccinated dogs.”
Veterinarians also spoke out about the ethical problems of the experiments. “I would have thought that Taiwan is at the forefront of modern science and ethical responsibility toward animals,” wrote Katie Loeffler, D.V.M., Ph.D. “It comes as a significant surprise to me to learn that Taiwan is planning such a primitive and inhumane experiment.”
News of the looming experiments on beagle puppies and other animals soon spread to international celebrities, who Dr. Lai invited to write letters on behalf of the Physicians Committee.
Taiwanese media and English-language news outlets around the world covered letters by actors Alec Baldwin and Maggie Q, Taiwanese entertainer Han-ya Liu (Aya), and Taiwanese model I-Hwa Wu, all urging the Taiwanese government to cancel the experiments.
“Having lived and worked in Taiwan, I know it to be a place of progressive ideas and practices,” wrote Maggie Q. “I am concerned that these experiments are a step backward, not forward. I strongly believe that the lives of animals matter and that we must not cause harm to one to protect another when the only result will be to prove what has already been repeatedly demonstrated.”
Alec Baldwin wrote, “I have two dogs myself, and want them to be safe from the threat of rabies, so I understand your concern about the recent rabies outbreak in Taiwan and your desire to protect the city’s animals and humans. But infecting beagle puppies with this new strain of rabies isn’t the answer.”
A Physicians Committee petition also urged U.S. senators to send a message to the Taiwanese government that the international community will not tolerate animal cruelty in the name of faulty science.
In November, news that an unvaccinated puppy had become infected with rabies and euthanized proved the obvious: that the new strain does not differ significantly from other rabies viruses.
“We hope the Taiwanese government will reconsider plans to infect unvaccinated animals with the rabies virus...,” Dr. Cavanaugh wrote to Jiang Yi-huah, the premier of the Republic of China. “Doing so will undoubtedly save animal lives.”
As Good Medicine went to print in December, the Physicians Committee had successfully delayed the deadly experiments. But until the Taiwanese government officially announces that it will spare beagles and other animals from rabies infection, Physicians Committee scientists will continue to work to stop them.