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Sunday, December 15, 2019

The lab rats, dogs and monkeys we need to say thanks to

The tricky issue of testing drugs and medical devices on animals.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Updated: January 6, 2019 9:45:09 am
The Plague Dogs, chimpanzee, rat, Perfectly healthy monkeys are first made hideously ill by deliberately infecting them and then various permutations and combinations of the drug are tested on them. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

It’s a hugely contentious issue: Should animals be used for testing new drugs and medical devices before these are cleared for human trials and then tested on human “volunteers” (who are tellingly called “guinea pigs”)?  Animals have been used for centuries by drug companies doing research in medicine and government laboratories trying to figure out how they can produce mass-killing viruses. Monsters like Hitler had doctors experimenting horrifically on human beings (whom he thought were disposables if they were not blond and blue-eyed). Even “liberal” countries like the US often did unspeakable things with human “guinea pigs” — taking advantage of the poor and the backward. What they did to Henrietta Lacks is a case in point.

Animal lovers argue: if the drugs are meant for us, why should they be tested on animals at all? Why should they suffer the unspeakable horrors and pain that these tests entail? Perfectly healthy beagles or monkeys or chimpanzees are first made hideously ill by deliberately infecting them and then various permutations and combinations of the drug are tested on them. Orangutans are turned into chain smokers, or worse, into drug addicts (all their doses are free, not just the first one!) to study the withdrawal symptoms during detoxification trials. And these days, nearly everything we eat or sniff causes cancer because rats were given one million times the normal amount of the suspect substance and got it.

Pioneering surgeons too have done experimental operations on animals before trying them out on human patients. The heart transplant must have first been done on monkeys or chimps. Baby monkeys and apes are kept in isolation to observe its effect on their personalities.

With genetic engineering, it’s now gone one level higher. We are growing human ears on the backs of rats and are trying to make pigs’ and sheep’s hearts suitable for human transplantation. With a bit of deft genetic tweaking we’re soon going to be able to replace all our defective and decrepit body parts — heart, kidney, lungs, even brains, etc., with those of specially-bred animals.

The labs where these experiments are conducted must be horrific places and off limits to everyone except those working there. And you wonder how can someone who has just infected a happy little beagle with something unspeakable and incurable go back home after work and make a huge fuss of his or her own dog? Probably they don’t keep dogs—or pets of any kind. Or maybe they do — probably of the most spoilt variety.

The case put forward by the medical fraternity is that new drugs, surgical procedures and medical devices have to be thoroughly tested on animals before human trials. And there are so many animals that are so similar to us, for easy testing: cockroaches, rats, dogs, pigs, monkeys (macaques and capuchins are favourites) and apes. Besides it would be wonderful to crack the secret of how cockroaches manage to survive a nuclear holocaust. Anyway, it’s impossible to just try a new formulation or medical procedure on a human being without first testing on animals — you could be sued for millions — even if the “guinea pigs” did agree to undergo the trials.

There’s one area where animal testing needs to be completely banned: the testing of cosmetics and skin creams. Rabbits don’t need to have their eyes flooded with gallons of shampoo so we can see what happens. Or force fed a thousand tubes of lipstick to see if it poisons them.

Of course, sometimes things can go hideously wrong. An infected research animal can escape — and why not — and cause panic in the locality. Richard Adams’ fictionalised this in his book The Plague Dogs (1977). And sometimes, ardent activists sneak in and forcibly free these animals.

Fortunately, the trend now is to reduce the use of animals in medical experiments. Many traumatised beagles are now being repatriated to normal homes to be kept as pets (some will never properly recover).

It’s not just medical experiments. Animal abuse is of many kind. Labradors, beagles, poodles, and spaniels are highly trained to sniff drugs in passenger baggage at airports — and themselves get hooked in turn and have to be de-rostered. Poor souls have to pay the price for someone sneaking in 10 kg of cocaine up his posterior.

It really is impossible to take a holier-than-thou stand on this issue. No matter how strongly we feel that testing drugs and medical devices on animals is unholy — we’re all probably “guilty”. Anyone who has had any drug or medical procedure or surgery is, probably, culpable — because that drug, procedure or operation has almost certainly been tested on a rat or chimpanzee before it hit the pharmacies or was tried out in the operating theatre.

I, too, can’t get all sanctimonious. I’ve lived on pacemakers for most of my life and know the devices must have been tested to destruction on dogs and monkeys before being allowed into the market. All I can do is mouth a silent “thank you” to every dog I see, and — if it is friendly — give it a pat on the head and a biscuit. As for monkeys, especially macaques, well, if only they had better manners.

The article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Down in Jungleland: The Lab Rats’

Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

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