Scientists at the California National Primate Research Center will soon infect pregnant rhesus monkeys with the Zika virus to determine whether it causes microcephaly in babies.
Koen Van Rompay, Ph.D., a leading virologist at UC Davis who pioneered research preventing HIV transmission between pregnant mothers and babies, is leading the studies.
He explains the value of the animal study, “Microcephaly [in fetuses] seems to occur when women get infected during the first trimester of the pregnancy, but in humans there are a lot of co-factors, so it’s hard to be certain. The value of an animal model is we can really control so many factors. We can infect a monkey with just the Zika virus, and if we then see microcephaly that would provide the strongest piece of evidence that Zika is the cause.” The next steps at the lab would be to test intervention strategies, such as vaccines and drugs to block transmission and/or block infection.
However, the effectiveness of such animal research is being questioned, not just by organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), but also the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A recent strategy paper from the NIH states: “Petri dish and animal models often fail to provide good ways to mimic disease or predict how drugs will work in humans, resulting in much wasted time and money while patients wait for therapies.”
Justin Goodman, Director of Laboratory Investigations with PETA, says “Animal studies on Zika are unnecessary because scientists are very close to determining the link to microcephaly based on the myriad human cases.”
Indeed in mid-February, the World Health Organization said it expects to decide within a few weeks if there is a link between the Zika virus and birth defects.
A Lancet-published study involving pregnant women in Brazil “strengthens” the theory that Zika is linked to birth defects. The research confirmed the presence of the virus in the amniotic fluid of two women who had Zika-like symptoms.
Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of the WHO said, “It seems indeed that the link with Zika (and microcephaly) is becoming more and more probable… I think that we need a few more weeks and a few more studies to have this straight," as reported by BBC News.
Yet the epidemic continues to spread rapidly around the world. Yesterday, the Pan-American arm (PAHO) of the WHO called for ramping up research.
"The bottom line is that there is yet much to learn about Zika. We have made some progress but we still need to learn much more about this virus," said Marcos Espinal, director of PAHO/WHO's Department of Communicable Diseases. "Laboratory detection, epidemiology, the dynamics of arboviral diseases, mapping new vector control tools, these are among our priority research topics today."
Goodman of PETA argues with so much known and so many resources dedicated to Zika research the animal researchers are simply using this outbreak to justify funding for their research – which wastes time and resources on a methodology that has bitter little success. “That causes harm when humans wait for a vaccine or a treatment in vain,” he said.
If the type of research and studies that PETA is advocating fails to provide enough timely knowledge to fight Zika, would you support animal research?
Koen Van Rompay, D.V.M, PH.D., Virologist, California National Primate Research Center, UC Davis; Van Rompay pioneered research preventing HIV transmission between pregnant mothers and babies; he tweets from @KoenVanRompay
Justin Goodman, Director, Laboratory Investigations Department, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals