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The Physicians Committee

Panel Fails to Protect Animals from Testing

By Kristie Sullivan, M.P.H.

This opinion piece was published on June 17, 2008, in The Herald-Sun.

An obscure group of government appointees from around the country will gather at a hotel in Research Triangle Park this week to decide the fate of thousands of animals. If history repeats itself, the animals are in trouble.

The appointees all serve as scientific advisors to a government panel with a particularly miserable track record. Known as the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods, or ICCVAM, the panel is charged by Congress with reducing and replacing the use of animals in safety testing.

Administered by a government agency based in the Triangle, ICCVAM represents the interests of 15 government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- all concerned with consumer safety. But as a Washington Post exposé recently revealed, the panel is spectacularly ineffectual.

Each year, approximately 15 million mice, rats, rabbits, dogs, and other animals are subjected to painful, usually lethal experiments in the United States to test the safety of various consumer products, chemicals, drugs and medical devices. Sunscreens, pesticides, and antibacterial cleaning agents are just a few of the thousands of products tested. A common test involves forcing a group of animals to ingest enough of a chemical to determine at which dose half the animals die.

It doesn't have to be this way. As a toxicologist, I can tell you there are dozens of effective and humane alternatives on the market. The science in this area is developing rapidly.

The problem lies largely with ICCVAM.

Congress created the panel in 1997 to respond to public sentiment against animal testing and concerns about product safety. (A growing body of scientific evidence shows that animal tests are not predictive of human toxicity because animal physiology differs so much from humans.) But in its 11 years of existence, the committee has "validated" only four nonanimal tests. That means that although many alternatives are available, ICCVAM has only reviewed and certified four tests worthy of meeting U.S. safety requirements. In contrast, ICCVAM's counterpart in Europe has approved 34 tests.

Are American regulators more careful than Europeans about product safety? Hardly. According to the Food and Drug Administration, 92 percent of drugs tested safe and effective in animals fail in human trials. Vioxx, a once-popular painkiller, looked safe in animal tests, but is now implicated in the cardiac-related deaths of thousands of Americans.

Last year, I watched another ICCVAM scientific review panel reject five perfectly good alternatives for a crude rabbit test commonly used in the United States to test medical products for a particular type of fever-producing bacteria. Instead, ICCVAM called for more comparison tests. But European scientists have been successfully using these five tests for decades and had submitted their data to ICCVAM in 2005. More than three years later, the full committee has yet to make a final decision.

While ICCVAM drags its heels, other parts of the government are increasingly acknowledging the limitations of animal testing. Most recently, the U.S. National Research Council released a report calling for a move away from animal tests toward more modern approaches.

Admittedly, ICCVAM is underfunded and understaffed. In comparison, its European counterpart has a robust staff and budget, including its own laboratories. And the European panel benefits from a regulatory climate that is conducive to change; in the European Union, nonanimal tests are mandated when available.

Despite these differences, ICCVAM could do far better. For years, we and other stakeholders have suggested ICCVAM simply approve the alternatives that its European counterpart has already put through a rigorous validation process. But ICCVAM inexplicably insists on doing its own evaluation. Is it professional ego or simple bureaucratic ineptitude? At times, it seems as if the panel is actively blocking progress.

Whatever the reason for ICCVAM's poor performance, it's time for a change. As taxpayers who foot the bill for agency-sponsored animal testing, consumers who use products that aren't always safe, and humanitarians concerned about animal cruelty, we owe it to ourselves to pay a bit more attention to obscure meetings in Research Triangle Park.

Kristie Sullivan is a senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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