Vaccines are now being disseminated for the prevention of COVID-19, but more than 16 million Americans have already contracted the disease, many of whom are still in desperate need of treatment and will suffer from long-term effects for months and possibly years to come. It may feel like we are in the home stretch of this tragic pandemic, but effective and ethical biomedical research is still needed to understand how the disease affects people and to develop best practices for prevention and treatment.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has responded quickly to the pandemic since it first emerged, but some of its actions may have been ill-considered. In July, the agency released a Strategic Plan for COVID-19 Research, in which it lays out objectives to improve our understanding of COVID-19 and to develop tools to better diagnose, prevent, and treat the disease, including by using animals such as mice and monkeys. These plans are presented despite the agency’s own admission that “Previous experience with related coronavirus diseases suggests that replicating COVID-19 in animal models may be challenging.”
The NIH recently sought feedback on this plan. The Physicians Committee’s response outlined key recommendations to address the current pandemic and prepare for future events in an ethical and equitable manner, by focusing on humans, not animals. We called on the agency to acknowledge the scientific and ethical failures of animal experimentation for past coronaviruses and COVID-19 and to immediately shift toward the development and use of more human-relevant approaches. We also urged the NIH to invest in humans by expanding funding for human-focused research that leads to the most effective public health measures while addressing health disparities and protecting vulnerable study participants. Our full comment can be found below.
The Physicians Committee will continue to engage with the NIH and other federal agencies to ensure that the response to COVID-19 is responsible and effective.