Marisa Peryer

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, penned a letter to University President Peter Salovey calling on Yale to stop animal experimentation during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

The March 30 letter urged Yale to stop current and new animal experiments, ban the breeding and purchase of research animals and increase transparency around its animal testing. According to Shalin Gala, vice president of PETA’s Laboratory Investigations Department, many universities have killed research animals so that the remaining animals would be easier to care for amid staff shortages in the COVID-19 pandemic. PETA has sent similar messages to universities across the country.

“If [a] sloppy and substandard job of caring for animals in a fully staffed laboratory is what we can expect, then that doesn’t really bode well for when there are staffing shortages during a pandemic,” Gala told the News. “The COVID-19 outbreak should be a moral and scientific reckoning for the school, which conducts deadly experiments on animals,” he continued in a PETA press release about the letter. 

The University’s website states that “if possible, animal research should be ramped down, curtailed or postponed” in response to the pandemic. But it stipulates that staff will provide care to animals still in laboratories and Yale Animal Resources Center will continue daily care for the animals in its facilities.

University spokesperson Karen Peart told the News in an email that critical laboratory work — including research on the COVID-19 infection and therapeutic clinical research studies — is continuing during the pandemic, but that other research is paused. Preservation of some animals and cell lines is also deemed critical. 

The vast majority of animal species maintained in Yale’s research colonies have been unaffected by this crisis,” Peart wrote. “Yale will continue to take seriously its responsibility for the appropriate care of animals; our laboratories comply with or exceed all federal regulations and independent accreditation standards.”

PETA’s letter called on Yale to justify that its animal experiments are necessary. Gala claimed that universities could not simultaneously hold that animals are vital to medical research while also classifying them as non-essential during the pandemic.

“That’s like a CEO saying all company staff are valuable while simultaneously classifying a large percentage as expendable and then firing them,” he said.

The letter claimed that the COVID-19 pandemic would likely exacerbate existing animal welfare issues in Yale’s labs. It alleged a number of instances of animal maltreatment Yale has perpetrated — including ones where 10 zebrafish flowed out of their tank and died after a staff member failed to replace a tank baffle, four mice died after they were left without food and water for more than three days and multiple mice were used in neurodegeneration experiments that exceeded humane endpoints. The incidents all took place in 2018.

Public records from the National Institutes of Health reviewed by the News confirmed the University had reported upwards of 10 violations of the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals within the past two years. One letter from last May alleges a “recent programmatic issue” of Yale lab members not providing rodents with painkillers while clipping their tails and toes.

Michael Bracken, epidemiology professor and research scientist, told the News that animal experimentation is crucial to help develop treatments, diagnostics and vaccines for COVID-19.

“Yale must be part of this effort,” Bracken wrote in an email to the News. He explained that the animals should be used only according to the “highest ethical standards,” adding that the humane care for test subjects becomes even more important during the pandemic.

“Scientific rigor cannot be achieved if the animal subjects are abused,” Bracken wrote.

In a March 23 article in Science Magazine, Peter Smith, associate director of Yale University’s Animal Resources Center, said that the University has not mandated euthanasia of research mice, but that it may eventually need to should there be severe staff shortages.

As of now, the article reads, the University has asked researchers to identify “extraneous” animals. Gala claimed these will be killed.

Some activists claim that animal welfare risks outweigh potential benefits from the studies. Manny Rutinel LAW ’21, co-president of Yale Animal Welfare Association, noted that anatomical differences between animals and humans mean many treatments that seem promising in animal tests ultimately fail in humans. Conversely, treatments dismissed after failing in animals may have proved beneficial in humans.

Both Gala and Annabel Remudo ’22, YAWA co-president, called on Yale to switch to non-animal testing methods such as using human cell cultures, in vitro testing or computer modeling.

“There are better and more humane ways of testing that don’t involve animals,” Remudo said. “Yale should be focused on advancing those technologies rather than staying in the past.”

PETA’s press release on the letter linked to a 2014 piece by Bracken in The BMJ that found animal testing often in practice fell below ethical standards.

Rose Horowich | rose.horowich@yale.edu