Making the world safe for killer viruses

Posted: Apr 29, 2003 12:00 AM

For animal-rights activists, the massive press coverage of severe acute respiratory syndrome has missed the really important item -- a few monkeys were deliberately killed during research into the virus.

This outrage against primates everywhere occurred in the frantic search to determine what pathogen causes SARS, a crucial first step in developing tests to detect the virus, drugs to treat it and, perhaps, eventually a vaccine.

Animal-rights protesters -- hands down the most fanatical of all single-issue activists -- maintain that animal research is unnecessary as a practical matter and morally wrong. The past few weeks of the SARS epidemic have demonstrated their folly on both counts. If the activists had their way, they would only make the world safe for killer viruses.

Researchers didn't know if SARS was caused by a new coronavirus (a virus related to the bug that causes the common cold) or a microbe from the entirely different paramyxovirus family. It was important to know, and know quickly, so the researchers turned to rhesus macaque monkeys.

Critics of animal research maintain that testing can be done with computer simulations. But we just don't know enough about how complex organisms work to write it all into a computer code. And given the urgency of the SARS epidemic, there wasn't time to work with mice instead of primates.

So the monkeys were inoculated with the various viruses. Some of them got sick, and some were euthanized to see if their organs had suffered similar damage to that of SARS victims. From all that issued a minor medical miracle. The SARS virus was discovered in weeks, whereas it had taken two years to discover the AIDS virus, and five months to discover the bacterium causing Legionnaires' disease.

Now, you can admire the rhesus monkey's red face and rump, marvel at its ability to eat 92 different plant species and envy its promiscuity (if you're into that kind of thing), but it takes a moral idiot not to welcome its contribution to SARS research. If we must, let's award posthumous service medals to the brave, fallen monkeys for their contribution to the cause, but let's not pretend that it was unnecessary.

Researchers don't enjoy making animals sick, and it is much cheaper and easier to work without them. But they have a moral responsibility to conduct research on animals when the only alternative is conducting experiments on humans, and when their research will advance the cause of human health, as it has in developing the polio vaccine in the 1950s, or in discovering the SARS virus today.

The debate over animal research is so fierce because it involves fundamentally clashing moral worldviews. The activists believe that there is no moral distinction between the suffering of humans and animals. All of us -- human, rhesus and rat -- are mere collections of sensations.

It is impermissible, therefore, to make animals suffer pain to try to alleviate our own. Some theorists, such as Princeton University's notorious Peter Singer, take this position to its logical conclusion. As the indispensable writer on bioethics Wesley J. Smith notes, "He believes that humans with the lower quality of life should be used in medical research in place of animals with a higher quality, as measured by cognitive capacity."

Similarly, the more serious animal-rights activists take their belief that a holocaust is being perpetrated against animals to its logical end by resorting to intimidation tactics and violence. The FBI has labeled the Animal Liberation Front a "terrorist front." Just last week, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force raided homes in Somerset, N.J., and Seattle in connection with the investigation of another radical animal-rights group.

A lawyer for the group said, "I've never come across a group of people who are more peacefully interested in the human condition, and the animal condition." The human condition and the animal condition, however, aren't the same thing, and we have to choose between the two.

Sorry, monkeys. I'm with the humans.