Pandemics are a constant threat to humans and animals alike. While scientists have worked feverishly to create vaccines for the most recent pandemics, such as HIV/AIDS, smallpox, and SARS, they have experimented with other methods of control in the past. One method was animal testing. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, an estimated 21 million animals were infected and killed in the United States alone for this purpose. However, because so many people died from breathing in animal-influenced air, scientists started to think that maybe testing on animals wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Animal testing did not save many lives. Scientists killed about 10,000 monkeys in the 1930s to test for polio and failed to establish a vaccine shortly before the outbreak of World War II (Krauthammer). Additionally, “scientists estimate that more than 100 million animals have died as part of experiments since the mid-20th century,” occurring in the United States and other countries (Krauthammer). Ironically, scientists may have spread the Spanish flu virus in their efforts to conduct animal testing.
During tests done on monkeys at Harvard University and Yale University, researchers “injected the animals with parts of flu victims’ lungs,” which were dissected from people who had died from lung infections (Krauthammer). According to The Journal of Infectious Diseases, the scientists “didn’t realize this would cause them [the monkeys] to be infected and re-infect each other” (Krauthammer).
Even if animal testing had saved lives during the Spanish flu pandemic, it still could not account for 21 million “sacrificed” animals. In response to the pandemic and animal testing, a meeting was held by scientists in Washington, DC, in June of 1922. The United States Congress banned all virus testing on humans and mandated that all test subjects be given anesthesia before undergoing experiments (Krauthammer). While this did not end animal testing in the United States, it did encourage scientists to use more humane methods when studying biological agents.
For new technology or viruses to be studied by scientists nowadays, elaborate and extensive precautions must be taken. To prove that they have already isolated the pathogen and that no other animals will become infected during the study, scientists must keep the virus in a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory. These laboratories are high-security facilities that are “air-locked and have special venting systems” (Krauthammer).
Furthermore, before doing any research on humans, the National Institutes of Health will conduct animal testing first. This is the Institute’s “guiding principle,” which is intended to ensure scientists that “they have no other choice” (Krauthammer).
Animal testing has a very long history; however, it will never account for all of the lives lost during the Spanish flu epidemic. Therefore, animal testing may seem like a harsh and inhumane research method, but many scientists and government agencies currently consider it the best way to ensure that a new technology or virus will not harm others.