Most animal research at the University of Georgia has been put on hold due to COVID-19.

While the University of Georgia’s campus is closed, all nonessential research has stopped, including experiments with live animals.

UGA is currently in the yellow threat level of the researcher pandemic service reduction plan. All in-person training classes and facility tours are canceled. Researchers are required to delay nonessential studies and can only breed to maintain valuable colonies that aren’t available anywhere else.

Although part of the yellow threat plan is to euthanize unneeded animals, no research animals have been culled so far, David Lee, vice president for research at UGA, said.

Nonessential experiments can only be conducted off-campus, according to UGA’s Office of Research. Essential research is allowed to continue at UGA, according to Lee, who determines what research is considered essential.

At UGA, research involving COVID-19 has been deemed essential. Forty or more faculty teams are currently conducting research for the development or testing of vaccines, drugs and more efficient tests, Lee said.

Experiments involving preservation of animals, valuable plants and other irreplaceable materials are also considered essential, Lee said. Studies involving people that give direct benefits to study participants are also essential. These studies must be completed as soon as possible and samples must be stored for analysis at a later time if possible, according to UGA research guidelines.

Ethical concerns

In an email sent to UGA President Jere Morehead on April 29, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for UGA to end research involving animals. PETA Vice President of International Laboratory Methods Shalin Gala asked UGA to release information about all animals involved in experiments and how they will be affected by the COVID-19 shutdown of research.

Gala also asked UGA in the email to end all animal experiments. The email said UGA should “prove that all of these animals and experiments are concretely advancing human health, and if they’re not then switch to superior human-relevant, animal-free research methods.”

UGA adheres to all humane standards of the Animal Welfare Act, the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals and the policies of UGA and the University System of Georgia, said Lee.

“We do not take lightly the decision to use animals in some of our research at the University of Georgia,” Lee said.

According to the University Research Animal Resources orientation handbook, all proposed research activities that involve animal use at UGA must be overseen by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Investigators must write animal use protocols to explain the proposed experiments and submit them to the committee, which also visits research sites and issues policies about animal use.

The committee must ensure that all research complies with the National Institutes of Health policies on laboratory animal care.

Adapting procedures

UGA’s dairy and swine farms are also adapting to new procedures during COVID-19. John K. Bernard, an animal and dairy science professor, said staff workers at the dairy farm are screened for COVID-19 symptoms when they arrive each day. Workers are also maintaining distance from each other.

All laboratory work has ceased, but Lee approved three studies to continue. Two of these are field plot studies that require one to two people that can maintain a safe distance while harvesting. A grazing study in the beef unit was also approved that requires one or two people to collect data.

Bernard said Dairy Farmers of America markets the milk produced by the UGA dairy farm. In 2019, average milk prices were $16.87 per one hundred pounds of milk, but prices have dropped to $2.50 per one hundred pounds at UGA because of lower demand, Bernard said.

The UGA dairy farm depends on milk sales to fund operations because it does not receive government funding, according to Bernard. The dairy farm has been operating with one less full time employee and one less student employee since prices dropped.

The largest issue the dairy farm is facing is having to defer facility maintenance and equipment upgrades. This has increased total repair costs as facilities and equipment get older and require more repairs.

Although demand is lower than usual, UGA has not been forced to dump any milk, Bernard said.

The swine farm at UGA has not started any new studies since the new research directives began, according to Francis Fluharty, UGA’s Animal and Dairy Science department head. All swine farm research must be approved by Lee.

Food and animal production has been deemed essential, so daily animal care is continuing, according to Fluharty. The UGA swine farm only has three full-time employees and each can work in separate barns, so social distancing is not an issue.