Sitting amongst the alerts in my inbox this morning was the news that the BACVI (Badger and Cattle Vaccination Initiative) has been launched. Their fund has been backed by celebrities Brian May and Brian Blessed, some animal rights charities and animal-rights leaning company Lush. The website features a ZSL (Zoological Society of London) conference, although it's unclear if ZSL support the initiative.
Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say. The idea is a good one. The badger cull does not appear to have been effective, and many have pointed out that one didn't need a crystal ball to see that it had little chance of success.
However, both Brian May and Brian Blessed have spoken out in support of anti-vivisection campaigns and organisations in the past. Lush bags carry the slogan "Fighting Animal Testing", and yet guess how we got the badger TB vaccine? That's right: animal research.
The position of Lush seems easy enough to explain. They base their "Fighting Animal Testing" slogan on European chemicals testing legislation, despite the fact that such tests would only occur on chemicals the primary use of which would not be in cosmetics. Animal testing of cosmetics or their ingredients has been illegal in the UK since 1998. One cannot even import cosmetics tested on animals into Europe. Lush may be "cruelty free", but so is literally every other cosmetics merchant in the country.
The apparent position of activists like Brian May is harder to justify. I think we would all love to be in the position that we could have the best of all possible worlds: cancer drugs without the mouse experiments, air travel without the climate change, drinking without the hangover, but that isn't the choice that we're faced with.
The fact is, aside from insidious diseases gifted by our genes or environment, Mother Nature isn't half fond of an indiscriminate killing spree. Leaving animals, including humans, to suffer from contractible diseases is not ethical. It does not end suffering. It ignores suffering. Limiting research options to basic tools such as computers and cell cultures slows medical, veterinary and environmental research to a crawl, and that isn't ethical either. The development of a vaccine aside, was it not sensible to test the badger TB vaccine before rolling it out to every badger in the land?
Yet limiting animal research and testing is precisely what several prohibitionist groups wish to do. The BUAV, whose campaigns have been supported by Brian May, wishes to prohibit all animal research, so that scientists would be severely restricted in developing new treatments or understanding disease. Similarly, campaigner Victoria Martindale, when pressed last year by the BBC on what scientists should be using, replied that "MRI scanners" could take the place of animals. This is despite the fact that a) MRI scanners are already used - to scan animals, b) to study tumour growth in a human would mean not treating said tumour and c) most biological processes are rather smaller than the 1mm minimum measurement offered by these machines.
This isn't Star Trek. We don't have whizzy computers that can model biological organisms well enough to replace animals. We are doing more to find alternatives, helped not least by the pioneering work of the NC3Rs, which offers millions in grants to researchers to develop non-animal methods, but we do not have an alternative for every procedure yet. In fact, under UK law it is illegal to use an animal if there is an alternative. The fact that animals are used at all is testament to the absence of practicable alternatives.
A principled stand is a fine thing when the principles are sound, but a principle that states that animals should never be used in research is a strange one indeed. 12 dogs were used to discover insulin. 14,000 diabetic dogs are alive right now in the UK alone due to that discovery. It is a strange philosophy indeed that on principle sacrifices 14,000 dogs to save 12. The rationale behind animal research essentially reverses that equation and chooses to save the 14,000 (as well as all the thousands of diabetic dogs and, you know, people that have lived in the UK since treatment became available).
Perhaps Brian May and Brian Blessed hold more nuanced views on animal research than absolute prohibition, but it is hard to tell when they offer their support to prohibitionist organisations. One thing is for sure: no animal research, no badger vaccine.
The irony of anti-vivisection campaigners arguing for vaccination over a cull has not been lost on those of us who advocate an informed approach to policymaking. The badger TB vaccine is a perfect example of the cost of preventing animal research, namely greater suffering: not ethically controlled in a lab to minimise suffering, so much as courtesy of Mother Nature's bludgeon in the field.
If you wish to learn about the development of the badger TB vaccine using animals, UAR have a factsheet here.