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Clifford: Misinformation campaigns against animal testing can cost human lives

We’ve all witnessed the severe, at times deadly dangers of misinformation campaigns.

False claims have fueled COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy around the globe. Nearly one quarter of Americans remain unvaccinated and the impacts have been tragic. A Kaiser Family Foundation study released this past December estimated that between June and November of 2021, failure to vaccinate led to 163,000 U.S. deaths. During the same period, 690,000 vaccine-preventable hospitalizations occurred racking up $13.8 billion in hospital costs nationwide.

But the dangerous health threat of misinformation is not limited to the pandemic. The biomedical research community has long been on the receiving end of a firehose of lies and misrepresentations, claims often circulated by animal rights organizations with multi-million dollar bankrolls.

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For example, in 2019 the United States Department of Agriculture shuttered a world-renowned research program to combat a parasite named Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite is a leading cause of food-borne illness deaths in our country. Among those at highest risk: pregnant women and their children. T. gondii can cause blindness and mental disability in the infants of mothers who were infected during or prior to pregnancy.

The USDA’s lab was closed not because the T. gondii parasite suddenly went away or because a miracle cure was developed. The program was cancelled following an aggressive misinformation campaign fueled by animal activists who objected to the study of cats to combat the disease. But it turns out research involving cats was entirely necessary and completely logical given the fact that this particular species plays a pivotal role in the spread of the parasite. Cats are the only animals known to host and shed T. gondii oocytes.

In the near future, animal activists could have an even greater negative impact on our collective health. At the state level, a Wisconsin-based group has been successful in getting several communities to ban both the breeding and sale of animals involved in critical research. And at the national level, well-funded groups are employing misinformation in an aggressive campaign attempting to eliminate access to nonhuman primates and close our country’s world-renowned National Primate Research Centers. They’re doing this despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic once again demonstrated a critical need for nonhuman primate studies to develop therapies and treatments to fight both current and future infectious disease outbreaks.

How have animal activists been able to accomplish all of this? In many cases, their campaigns are based in false claims, half truths and misinformation. For instance, one popular activist talking point is that animal research is the reason why only about 5 percent of all candidate medications make it all the way through the FDA approval process. Research opponents claim non-animal alternatives can increase this success rate. But here’s the truth: These alternative technologies are still in their infancy. Many are unproven. They have limited use and they are already being employed whenever possible. On top of that, these alternatives cannot replace the animal studies required in the most important portions of the drug development process: early-stage studies that explain how living systems and diseases operate.

Our elected officials, along with ordinary American citizens, require a much greater understanding of how animal and veterinary advancements occur. And our biomedical research institutions should play a major role in this urgently-needed public education campaign. If we fail to address this threat, we may very well allow research opponents to legislate away our chances for future lifesaving cures.

Clifford serves as executive director for Americans for Medical Progress, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that offers innovative programs to inform and educate the public about biomedical research and specifically, the important role of animals in advancing medicine and science.

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