A presentation by Ryan Merkley and Mark Kennedy from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sparked debate Wednesday night about regulations involving animal experimentation.
Merkley, associate director of research policy at PCRM, and Kennedy, director of legal affairs at PCRM, spoke at the Zell B. Miller Learning Center at the University of Georgia about animal experimentation and the law. The event was hosted by Speak Out for Species.
Kennedy said there is major flaw in the Animal Welfare Act — the only federal law that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport and by dealers.
“It’s an intentional flaw,” he said. “It’s the definition of an animal, which under the legal system is very different from the dictionary definition. There’s this language from the statute. It starts out strong with some examples — dogs, cats, non-human primates, guinea pigs, rabbits — and it continues to include certain other warm-blooded mammals. And then it excludes rats, mice and birds bred for research. So you have a federal law that is intended to cover animals in research, but for any of these types of animals it ignores them.”
Merkley said mice and rats make up about 95 percent of animals used for research.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in charge of inspecting research facilities and enforcing the AWA, but research institutions are also expected to self-regulate and do their own internal inspections.
However, Christopher King, assistant vice president for research and director of animal care and use at the UGA, said Merkley and Kennedy were clear on the limits and flaws of the AWA, but were unclear about other protections, such as the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use Laboratory Animals.
In response, Kennedy said the PHS Policy, or “The Guide,” was not a law, but a set of rules a researcher must follow if they are receiving federal funding for their research from the National Institutes of Health. He said the NIH could revoke the AWA document or stop grant funding if a researcher doesn’t follow the PHS Policy, but they have only done it once, about 30 years ago at Columbia University.
When King, who is responsible for UGA’s inspections and regulations, said institutions are expected to self-regulate, Merkley expressed doubt.
“If you can’t laugh at the term ‘self-regulate,’ what can you laugh at?” he said.
King said UGA takes self-regulating the care and use of lab animals very seriously and does not treat any animals differently just because they aren’t protected by a law.
In response, Kennedy said he wasn’t trying to “demonize” people in charge of self-regulating, but that the system is, in many cases, highly flawed and the U.S. is far behind other countries. He said a stricter law would lead more researchers to be more cautious with their animals, which King agreed with.
PCRM uses the law to get better protections for animals used in research.
“The thing I’m most passionate about, and the thing I work on entirely, is our work to replace the use of animals in laboratory experimentation,” Merkley said.
He said there are three types of animal experimentation: education and training, testing and basic research. Basic research is diseased-focused most of the time, he said.
“If you can think of a human disease or a human disorder, there’s probably someone somewhere testing a theory about it using an animal and getting a federal grant to do so,” Merkley said.
Merkley said oftentimes the result of human medicine isn’t always clear with these experiments. He said the NIH spent at least $6 billion in projects involving animals and claims most medical advancements can be attributed to animal research. It is irrefutable that most medical discoveries involved animals, he said.
“But what the question should be is whether or not we could have gotten there faster without the use of animals and whether or not animals either hindered the process or whether or not they were superfluous,” Merkley said. “All medical failures, keep in mind, involved animals as well.”
Merkley and Kennedy both agreed the main problem with animal experimentation is the flaws in the laws and their enforcement.
“When 95 percent of animals aren’t considered animals, they are regarded as less and they are abused of more readily and they are disposed of more readily,” Merkley said. “By having them written in the protections and in the definition of animals, we can change that and we can start to make people think more closely about whether or not they should use them in the first place.”