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Let’s ban testing of legal highs on animals – no, let’s ban all animal tests

Published on May 6, 2014 under Animal testing

As I write this, Parliament is about to pass legislation banning animal testing for legal highs. It is certainly an issue that has galvanised the public; humans and their dogs have been marching together in all the main centres, expressing their anger and disgust.

Perhaps it is the use the animals are to be put to that has caused such outrage in a normally apathetic public. The combination of severe suffering and severe banality; animals tortured so the disaffected can experiment with chemically induced euphoria, and the corporate drug pushers can line their pockets. There is also an anti-teen and anti-stoner element somewhere in the mix; it is not all about the animals.

Nevertheless, the campaign to ban one aspect of useless animal testing has served to raise awareness of vivisection generally. Because in spite of the tax-payer funded propaganda put out by the pharmaceutical industry, most vivisection in New Zealand is not for vital medical breakthroughs, but for purposes just as pointless as getting stoned in a night club – but not as much fun.

It is estimated that only around 10% of animal experimentation in New Zealand is medical in application. Much of the rest of it is agricultural – finding ways of extracting even more meat and milk from already stressed farm animals in a society that is already so sated with animal protein that our health is suffering as a result. Foods and pesticides are also tested on animals. For a long time, until non-animal alternatives were substituted, one major contributor to what the Ministry of Agriculture has described as “very severe suffering”, was tests on mice to determine the safety of shellfish, hardly a vital medical product.

The fact that shellfish are now routinely tested using non-animal experiments highlights another lie that the pharmaceutical industry chant with monotonous regularity – in harmony with corporate executives from every other destructive industry. I am referring to the incredibly powerful mantra There Is No Alternative, or TINA for short. This has been chanted by cosmetic companies frightened of losing a few dollars profit if they are not allowed to test on animals, by slave owners, supporters of debtors’ prisons and recently by the fossil fuel industry religiously defending what is sees as its right to cover the planet with oil. As history has shown us, there are always alternatives, and these are often not only more humane, but more efficient than those that destroy animals, societies and planets.

At a very crude level, all mammals are similar. All have a circulatory system, an open tube digestive system and a four chambered heart. A crude mechanical or chemical stimulus such as an acid that burns a rat could therefore reasonably be expected to have the same effect on a human. But at the level of toxicology and pharmacology – meaning the effects of beneficial and harmful substances on the body, animals and humans are complex but totally different systems that react very differently. Testing a drug or a toxin on animals is therefore an unreliable predictive tool when determining its effect on a human. Not only do humans and other mammals react differently to drugs and toxins, but men react differently to women, children differently to adults, and the president of Glaxo has even stated that there are drugs that work on some individuals but not others because of physiological differences.

Alternative methods of testing for toxic effects include nucleic acid sequencing for pathogen identification, use of cell cultures, epidemiological and post mortem studies on those who have been accidentally exposed to the toxin, and standard mutagen protocols such as the Ames tests. Substances with the potential for curing cancer can be routinely tested on cultures of every known tumour at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. These tests are at least as reliable as using animals, and more so in many cases.

Ironically the New Zealand Ministry of Health, a strong supporter of animal tests for legal highs, instead recommended non-animal tests for carcinogenity, because these are cheaper than using animals. In cases where the animal tests are cheaper, the ministry recommends them. The true agenda of this government agency is saving money for corporates, not effective science or human health.

Pandora Pound and others conducted a systematic review of animal tests for human diseases and published this in the prestigious British Medical Journal in 2004. The research team found that animal testing was not only ineffective in finding better disease treatment, it was often poorly planned, badly carried out, and used precious research funds that could have been better spent on more effective human studies.

Closer to home, New Zealand lost millions of dollars and our reputation when an animal test raised a false alarm for botulism in milk products. It beggars belief that in an age where bacteria can be identified to strain level on the basis of automatic nucleic acid sequencing, where even a cheap diagnostic test kit available in microbiology teaching laboratories is accurate enough for publication purposes, that a multi-million dollar agency would still be relying on nineteenth century technology like injecting mice. An automatic sequencer would have accurately identified the bacterium, saving a great deal of embarrassment. It is time we moved into the twenty-first century, and let the sunset animal testing industry finally sink out of sight.

– Michael Morris


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