Citing concerns over recent violence by animal-rights groups, Oklahoma State University president Burns Hargis last month overruled his own faculty and aborted a federally funded anthrax vaccine study that would involve the euthanasia of more than 100 baboons. The project had already been approved by the National Institutes of Health and by the university's own Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
Animal researchers across the country have reacted with frustration and anger. "It is disturbing to see the president of a university overruling the decision of the IACUC, especially when the study has also been through the NIH," says Mark Lively, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "Research institutions should be prepared and willing to defend both the principle and the system which contribute to the health of our nation." And OSU faculty members have voiced concerns about the future of animal research at their university. "OSU is now seen by researchers at other institutions as an unreliable research partner and afraid of animal-rights demonstrators," OSU veterinary scientist Richard Eberle told The Oklahoman late last week. University representatives say that in a faculty meeting on Tuesday, Hargis assured scientists that his decision was confined to this single project, which would have used baboons to test the anthrax vaccine that is currently given to members of the military.
The baboons would have been injected with the vaccine and then exposed to various strains of anthrax, including the Ames strain, the one used in the 2001 anthrax attacks that infected 22 people and killed five. Researchers would then have studied the animals in an effort to better understand the progression of infection and the vaccine's effectiveness. Scientists from Boston University were to head the project, which had secured $12 million in NIH funding for 2004 and an additional $14.3 million this past year. But the anthrax exposure and eventual baboon euthanasia would have taken place at OSU's high-containment laboratory, one of only a handful equipped to study highly infectious agents such as anthrax in primates.
OSU vice president of research Stephen McKeever blamed OSU's decision not to participate in the baboon study on the ongoing campaign against animal researchers in general, and scientists who work with primates in particular. "There are, regrettably, some violent acts committed by animal-rights groups," he told Natureearlier this week. "And the president felt we should take our breath here and not do this project just yet." In the past 10 years, animal-rights activists have used increasingly violent tactics—death threats, car bombs, envelopes containing razors—to intimidate scientists who conduct research on animals. Proto-terrorist groups like the Animal Liberation Front have conducted elaborate and violent offenses against their targets. Anecdotally, scientists working in fields that involve animal research have reported that the tactics—and the scrutiny—are getting worse. And, thanks to the Internet, extremists can now post online names, addresses, and specific identifying details of those deemed "animal torturers." According to the university, there were no specific threats to OSU faculty members. Gary Shutt, a spokesman for the university, explained the decision by saying that the controversy surrounding euthanasia of research animals would be "too distracting," but declined to elaborate further—an explanation that left the scientific community puzzled.
It's not the first time that OSU has been accused of kowtowing to those concerned about animal rights. Earlier this year, Madeleine Pickens, wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens (an OSU alum and benefactor), suggested she might want to redirect a $5 million donation away from the veterinary school when a student told her that animals used in surgery classes were later euthanized. The university quickly implemented a program to return those animals to shelters for adoption. When the story first broke, some faculty members speculated to science publications that Pickens had had a hand in the decision to halt the anthrax project; a post on her Web site offers "kudos" to the school for its "great decision." University officials insist the wealthy donor played no part. Pickens did not respond to requests for comment. Several faculty members close to the incident declined to comment for the story.
Animal-rights activists have argued that animal testing is outdated and ineffective. On its Web site, nonprofit animal-rights group In Defense of Animals argues that "a boom in technology has led to an abundance of humane and effective non-animal test methods which are directly applicable to human diseases and do not suffer from the fundamental problem of interspecies differences," citing bioengineered versions of various tissues and increasingly sophisticated forms of brain scans as examples. But most scientists—including Michael Conn, a researcher whose recent book The Animal Research War details his own experience with violent animal-rights activists—say the argument that technology can replace animal testing is simplistic and wishful thinking.
"There is a degree of truth to the argument that animals are not a good model for humans," says Conn, who is not affiliated with OSU. "But it's also true that adults are not the best model for children and men are not the best model for women. The only perfect model for you is you, but obviously we can't test every substance on every individual." In fact, U.S. law still requires that drugs be tested extensively on animals before human studies are conducted. While primate studies are often the final step in that process, primates make up only 0.1 to 0.2 percent of all animal research subjects. The vast majority of the rest are rodents, flies, and worms. Dogs, cats, and rabbits make up a combined 15 percent.
"I hope this is not the beginning of other universities making similar decisions," says Conn. "All that does is tell those who promote violence that their tactics are working."