When Lauren Strohacker received her second Covid-19 vaccine dose in the spring of 2021, she rejoiced. It meant she could see her friends again, go to concerts and live with far less fear that an infection might leave her physically or economically crippled.
But it became a bittersweet memory. Not long after Ms. Strohacker, an artist based in Knox County, Tenn., returned home from the vaccination site, she read an article about monkeys used in testing Covid vaccines.
“I thought, I’m afraid of a stupid needle,” she said. “And these animals have to deal with this all the time.” She reflected on how her newfound freedom, and quite possibly her health, came at the expense of animals suffering or dying to develop the vaccines.
Merely being grateful for those animals seemed insufficient; Ms. Strohacker wanted to give something tangible in return. A little online research returned the National Anti-Vivisection Society’s sanctuary fund, which supports the care of retired lab animals. She made a small donation. “To give thanks was the very least I could do,” Ms. Strohacker said.
Her gesture embodies a voice that is not often heard in debates about the use of animals in biomedical research. These tend to be polarized between opponents of the research, who claim that it is unethical and the benefits are overstated, and proponents who argue that the benefits are enormous and justify the harms to animals.
The advancement of animal-free methods for developing drugs and testing product safety does raise the possibility that, at least in some cases, the use of animals can be avoided. But it will take years for that to happen, and few researchers think the use of animals will cease altogether. So long as animals are used, then, the question remains: What do people owe them?
“The typical consideration is that if I plan the research well, have an important idea and respect the animals by housing them as carefully as I can and so on, then I’ve done my job in terms of the relationship,” said John Gluck, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico whose growing discomfort with his use of monkeys led him to become a bioethicist. “I think that is just poverty-stricken.”
Scientists often point to the so-called Three Rs, a set of principles first articulated in 1959 by William Russell, a sociologist, and Rex Burch, a microbiologist, to guide experimental research on animals. Researchers are encouraged to replace animals when alternatives are available, reduce the number of animals used and refine their use so as to minimize the infliction of pain and suffering.
These are unquestionably noble aims, ethicists note, but may seem insufficient when compared with the benefits derived from animals. Covid vaccines, for example, which were tested on mice and monkeys, and developed so quickly thanks to decades of animal-based work on mRNA vaccine technology, saved an estimated 20 million lives in their first year of use and earned tens of billions of dollars in revenues.
In light of that dynamic — which applies not only to Covid vaccines, but to many other human lifesaving, fortune-generating therapeutics — some wonder if a fourth R might be warranted: repayment.
Inklings of the idea of repayment can already be found in the research community, most visibly in laboratories that make arrangements for animals — primarily monkeys and other nonhuman primates — to be retired to sanctuaries. In the case of dogs and companion species, including rats, they are sometimes adopted as pets.
“It’s kind of karma,” said Laura Conour, the executive director of Laboratory Animal Resources at Princeton University, which has a retirement arrangement with the Peaceable Primate Sanctuary. “I feel like it balances it out a little bit.” The school has also adopted out guinea pigs, anole lizards and sugar gliders as pets to private citizens, and tries to help with their veterinary care.
Adoption is not an option for animals destined to be killed, however, which raises the question of how the debt can be repaid. Lesley Sharp, a medical anthropologist at Barnard College and author of “Animal Ethos: The Morality of Human-Animal Encounters in Experimental Lab Science,” noted that research labs sometimes create memorials for animals: commemorative plaques, bulletin boards with pictures and poems and informal gatherings in remembrance.
“There is this burden the animal has to carry for humans in the context of science,” Dr. Sharp said. “They require, I think, respect, and to be recognized and honored and mourned.”
She acknowledged that honoring sacrificed animals was not quite the same as giving something back to them. To imagine what that might entail, Dr. Sharp pointed to the practice of donating one’s organs after death. Transplant recipients often want to give something in return, “but the donor is dead,” Dr. Sharp said. “Then you need somebody who is a sort of proxy for them, and that proxy is the close surviving kin.”
If someone receives a cornea or a heart from a pig — or funding to study those procedures — then they might pay for the care of another pig at a farmed animal sanctuary, Dr. Sharp proposed: “You’re going to have animals who stand in for the whole.”
A variation of that principle can be see in children’s participation in possibly risky research, said Rebecca Walker, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. An ill child enrolled in a clinical trial for a still-unapproved drug may receive no personal benefit, but this is considered ethically acceptable because the research will benefit a larger community of children living with that condition.
“You’re contributing to the group, even if you’re not contributing to the individual,” Dr. Walker said. “That can be really relevant to the animal case.” For example, research on captive axolotls, a critically-endangered species of salamander, has yielded insights into breast cancer, spina bifida and tissue regeneration; in return, people might support efforts to help wild axolotls now struggling to survive in polluted canals in Mexico City.
For Lisa Genzel, a neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Judith Homberg, her collaborator at the institution’s medical school, compensating research animals is best accomplished by giving those animals a far better life than the regulations require. “We try to give back to the individual animal,” Dr. Genzel said.
That means contemplating their lives and what matters to them, she said. Dr. Genzel and Dr. Homberg said they no longer use food restriction to motivate their rats to solve mazes. They also make sure the rats can socialize not only with one another but with humans, who play with them daily.
They would like to house their rats in larger, more naturalistic enclosures, or at least cages large enough to stand up in, but “it’s not an easy thing,” Dr. Genzel said. “First we have to get the financing. We don’t have the money.” The cost of replacing the cages in a single facility can quickly run to tens of thousands of euros — and that’s without considering the price of new cage-cleaning machines.
Giving something back to research animals would entail a cost. Some experts offered that a portion of drug revenues or research grants could be earmarked for this purpose.
“I’m surprised it hasn’t been done already,” said Prem Premsrirut, chief executive of Mirimus, a company that develops animal models for testing new therapeutics. “I think that for anything we do in science, we have to give to those who sacrifice, regardless of whether it’s human beings or animals.”
For many critics of animal research, this would still not go far enough. “What we really owe the animals is to legitimately replace their use,” said Aysha Akhtar, a neurologist and former medical officer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who co-founded the Center for Contemporary Sciences, which supports the development of animal-free, human-relevant medical research methods.
Dr. Akhtar has called for increased funding for such methods. Revenue and grant earmarks might be devoted to this aim as well. “If I could make some part of my lab associated with the development of alternatives — to me, that’s how I could really give back,” Dr. Gluck said.
As for Ms. Strohacker, she has received her Covid vaccine boosters and is thinking of making another donation, this time in gratitude for the animals involved in testing her birth control drugs.
“We’ve been conditioned not to think about the animals who are sacrificed for our health,” Ms. Strohacker said. “I don’t think the world is so pure that we’ll ever do no harm, but we could maybe be more thankful materially for the harm that we do.”