Patients prescribed drugs tested on animals should be told details of exactly what it involved, including any suffering caused, say some of the world’s leading animal ethicists.
The editors of the Journal of Animal Ethics (JAE), published this month by the University of Illinois Press, want full disclosure on the nature of testing used in drug development. They say people should know “not only whether animals were used, but also what kind, how many were used, the precise procedures to which they were subject, and the nature and severity of the pain and suffering, if any, that they had to endure.”
The editors point to the comments of Lord Robert Winston, the famous pioneer of fertility treatment, in a debate on animal experiments in the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. Lord Winston stated: “I do not think we can argue that there is any substitute for animal research. Of course, reduction is possible but I do not think that substitution is … We need to say very clearly that it would be unthinkable to take any drug which has not been tested on an intact animal. In fact, there is a case for having legislation to make it clear that a particular drug has only been possible for human consumption because of animal testing. This could be stamped on the packet, rather like a cigarette packet.”
However, they consider Lord Winston’s proposal too modest: “Animals are subject to a whole range of uses in laboratories from the routine testing of household products, cosmetics (though some limitations have been placed on this in Europe) including the testing of agricultural products, poisons, sprays and herbicides, even fire-extinguisher substances. And that doesn’t include the use of animals in military experiments. If full disclosure, based on the right to know, is the position of animal researchers, and they have nothing to hide, there can be no grounds for postulating that only medical products should be singled out. Let us know all the details, the benefits (if any) and also the costs to the animals themselves.”
In the editorial the authors also call for information about “the way in which some animal experiments lead to no worthwhile discovery, those experiments that have impeded medical progress, even how many animal-tested drugs have been recalled after harming humans.” The editors ask whether we should not all have the right to know “about the experiments on human animals that have also, directly or indirectly, contributed to the increase of scientific knowledge as well as drugs and vaccines?” They suggest that Lord Winston may “have overlooked the long history of experiments on human subjects, including prisoners of war, enlisted soldiers, people of color, and the mentally challenged. Have these contributed nothing to medical advances? To take just one example, what of the early clinical trials of tuberculin treatments on orphan children (“intact [human] animals”) that took place in Philadelphia in 1908?”
They call for a full disclosure: “Yes, let there be disclosure. Let the facts and the history be known. Let us not shirk the details. Anything less may serve particular interests but is less than the full disclosure we have a right to expect.”
So would this system of disclosure work? In my opinion, as it stands the proposal is unwieldy and unworkable. That said, I agree in principle with a system of disclosure with attendant checks and balances to make sure that that the system adopted is completely transparent and accurate.
Would such a system have any effect? Actually, yes, I believe that it would change consumer behaviour. providing that the information disclosed was easy to understand and presented in a simple and accessible manner. With these caveats, I would tentatively endorse disclosure as a step forward.