Incendiary Lies and Uncomfortable truths about animal testing

Leishmaniasis life cycle through sand flies and humans

A recent story, complete with a picture of dogs being subjected to sand fly bites and inflammatory lies by animal rights groups, is being used to disparage Dr. Anthony Fauci as a heartless, politically motivated scientist. There are a lot of reasons to judge Dr. Fauci harshly, but this is not one of them. Let me explain.

Drug development and testing involves multiple steps to ensure safety and efficacy of a proposed drug before it is given to humans to treat disease.  In the case cited in the article from whitecoatwaste.org and echoed by PETA, lies include flies stripping flesh from bones. What is really happening is that anesthetized dogs are being infected with leishmaniasis parasites by bites from infected sand flies in order to test drugs to treat this dreadful tropical disease, which naturally infects dogs, cats, rodents, and humans by millions in tropical-subtropical regions of Africa, Middle East, southern Europe, South and Central America and even the United States.  See Leishmaniasis Facts:  below for more details about this disease. 

The flies are not “stripping the flesh from the bones” as described in the article.  Sand fly bites are like mosquito bites, not like being eaten by carrion or blow fly maggots, which this lie implies.  After being infected with the parasite through several sand fly bites, the dogs will be treated for the disease by an experimental drug to see how effectively it cures them, and to determine any unpleasant or dangerous side effects of the drug. 

Animal testing is a necessary, though disgusting, step in drug development. To ethically carry out this type of procedure, suffering of the animals must be minimized.[1.] That is why the dogs are anesthetized and only their heads are exposed to the sand fly bites. Dogs are the best model for this disease since it naturally infects dogs with a visceral form that can be fatal if untreated. This may be a part of development of veterinary treatment drugs, but it may be used for human drugs as well.

All drugs and cosmetics, as well as many other consumer products, are tested first on cell cultures and then on animals for both safety and effectiveness before graduating to human trials.  Covid vaccines and treatment drugs were tested on animals such as genetically modified mice before human trials, but without outrage because there was no cute pet sentimental propaganda.

Animal testing is a necessary step that, though sensibly abhorrent, must be done.  Eliminating testing of animal models would mean that drugs, cosmetics or other products would be given to humans without knowing if they might be harmful or be effective for the proposed purpose.  Typical animal models used for product development include a variety of vertebrates including dogs, cats, monkeys, Guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and mice. Animal models used to gauge a product’s potential for environmental pollution also include fish, crustaceans like crabs, mollusks like snails, as well as single cell, colony and other microscopic animals.

If a cosmetic or household product advertises that it is not tested on animals, it only means that the ingredients underwent animal tested by others in the past. Re-blending of well-known ingredients may not need more animal testing for each new mixture within reasonable variability.

It is true that animal models are not perfect matches for reactions in humans. Each animal has unique metabolic systems that vary from species to species.  What developers try to do is to match human systems as well as possible for the disease and the mechanism of the drug being developed.  For instance, some products are affected by whether or not an animal can make its own vitamin C. Humans cannot and have that in common with hamsters, which are sometimes used for toxicology and other testing.

Both White Coat Waste and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are advocacy groups that are dedicated to ending animal testing of all types.  Ending animal testing would end drug, cosmetic and consumer product development.  As much as I wish we could end animal testing, this is not possible unless we stop all progress, development or improvement of treatments for still orphaned diseases and conditions.

For example, the progress made by St. Jude in childhood leukemia and cancer treatment is remarkable. At one time, fatality was 80 to 90% for most types. Now, for most of these diseases, fatality is only 20%.  This is still too high, but could not have been accomplished without new drug and treatment development.  My daughter died over 40 years ago of a type of leukemia that is among those types that still have high fatality. Much research and development is still needed.

Leishmaniasis Facts:  Leishmania is caused by a protozoan parasite carried and spread by infected sand flies. Sand flies are tiny, about half the size of mosquitos, and are silent.  They are most active dusk to dawn.  Only females need blood for egg and parasite development.  Sand flies become infected by biting and taking a blood meal from infected dogs, cats, rodents or humans, so a few cases have now been acquired in Texas, probably by sand flies that had bitten immigrants from tropical countries.

Symptoms of visceral leishmania in humans, which may not be evident for months or even years, include fever, weight loss, enlarged spleen and liver, abnormal blood tests with low red and white cells and platelets and may cause kidney failure. The cutaneous form affects skin with nodules and ulcers that develop in a few weeks, but may progress to the visceral form even after the sores heal.

Symptoms in dogs include skin nodules, thickening of foot pads, dull and brittle hair and hair loss patches. Visceral symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, weakness, exercise intolerance, severe weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, bleeding nose, tarry stools, swollen lymph nodes, enlarged spleen, kidney failure.

Treatment:  No one treatment is effective for all cases. It varies with the form and the species/strain of the parasite, and even the geographical location.  CDC offers advice for several possible treatments, but does not ensure success for any one of them.  Some are not available in developing countries, and some are not available in the United States because the FDA had not approved them.  There is a need for development of vaccines and better treatments with a more assured outcome for all strains in all areas.

Full disclosure: Most of my knowledge about drug development protocols was gained while I worked for a pharmaceutical company for five years in the 1990s. I was a supervisor in a chemical control lab that tested FDA approved prescription drugs.  I was not directly involved in research and development or with testing experimental drugs on animals, but both were located at the same company site.  Animal rights protests and violence prompted the company to build a high security fence that included parking lots in order to protect employees.  

[1.] “In an emailed statement to MedPage Today, NIAID said the contract for “preclinical pharmacology and toxicology services” was conducted “as required in animal models by the FDA, in compliance with Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) guidelines and in a facility accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) or its equivalent.” from https://www.medpagetoday.com/special-reports/exclusives/95275 Oct. 26, 2021

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