AIDS Research wasted on animal testing

by Peter Tatchell

As Hollywood is pressured to choose between AIDS research and animal rights, Peter Tatchell argues that animal experiments are scientifically flawed and unethical.

AIDS awareness and animal rights are the two biggest Hollywood causes célèbres. Now stars are being told they can’t be in favour of both. AIDS activists claim there will be no progress in the fight against HIV without animal testing. They are demanding that Hollywood ditches its support for animal rights.

This has led a minority of celebrities, like singer Melissa Etheridge, to abandon their endorsement of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which campaigns against vivisection.

But the choice offered by AIDS activists is a false one. It is possible to support the rights of both animals and people with AIDS. Indeed, several dissident chapters of the AIDS activist organisation, ACT UP, backed the recent March For The Animals in Washington DC, as did the London-based queer rights group, OutRage!

In a letter read out at the March by rock star Chrissie Hynde, OutRage! declared: “We do not believe that the oppression of queer people can, or should, be remedied by the oppression of other peoples or species”.

The defenders of AIDS-related vivisection respond by arguing that finding a cure for HIV is so important that it justifies inflicting pain on animals. However, if cruelty is excusable for the greater good, then surely it would be also justifiable to experiment on humans. Obviously it is not!

The truth is that vivisection –not animal rights– is undermining the fight against AIDS. It is diverting resources away from more promising avenues of investigation. If we want to know how HIV affects humans, we need to study human physiology (not that of other species).

Confirmation that research findings with animals cannot be generalised to humans (and vice versa) is well established: there has been only one case of HIV causing AIDS-like illness in chimpanzees, and SIV (the monkey immune deficiency virus) doesn’t produce AIDS in people.

Common sense says that the most likely way to discover a vaccine and cure for HIV among humans is to research the interaction of HIV with human cells and the human immune system.

Since 1992, several of the world’s top scientists –including Professors Robin Weiss, Albert Sabine and Jonathan Weber– have warned that AIDS studies using animals are unlikely to be of much relevance to the conquest of HIV in people. They complain that the millions of pounds squandered on studies with other species would have been far more usefully spent on research with humans.

All the major advances in understanding HIV have been made without the need for vivisection. One of the very important insights into the way HIV penetrates the cells of the immune system was part-funded by an animal rights group (the Dr. Hadwen Trust). Using human cell cultures, this discovery at St. Mary’s Hospital, London, was made by researcher who are critical of vivisection on scientific grounds. Head of the research team, Professor Jonathan Weber, believes that their breakthrough may not have come about if, like many other scientists, they had focused on studies with non-human species.

ernatives to the use of animals in HIV experiments –such as human cell, tissue and organ cultures– increasingly offer fast and accurate results. Computer modelling has also made a big contribution to the development of new HIV treatments.

Once the provisional safety of a new anti-AIDS drug is ascertained, Professor Weber supports carefully controlled human volunteer trials. These can involve the administration of tiny, harmIess doses and the monitoring of their effects by means of blood samples, lasers, biopsies and ultrasound probes.

These techniques are a more reIiable indicator of a drug’s safety than experiments with animals. Tests with rats and mice, for example, failed to predict some of the adverse side effects of the two main HIV treatments, AZT and ddI.

Despite AIDS activists’ berating Hollywood stars with claims that animal research is necessary to save lives, there is not a single significant breakthrough in AIDS research that can be attributed to animal experimentation. Vivisection is, in fact, a disreputable, unethical pseudo-science that is hindering our understanding of AIDS and how to defeat it.