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Weapons research on animals

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The number of animals used in weapons research in British laboratories quadrupled between 1997 and 2007, from 4,500 to more than 18,000.

They were poisoned by chemical warfare agents, subjected to blast injuries, dosed with sensory irritants and deliberately wounded and killed by bacterial toxins. Most of this research took place at the Ministry of Defence establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire. Guinea pigs, rabbits, mice, dogs, rats, sheep, pigs, goats and monkeys were amongst the species used.

Pig experiments

Pigs are a particularly popular choice for weapons research. In one experiment at Porton Down, ten female Large White pigs were used to test the effects of Phosgene, a highly toxic gas. The animals were anaesthetised and exposed to the gas for varying lengths of time. Most died from severe lung damage. Those who survived were euthanased at the end of the experiment (1).

Pigs have also been used to study physiological shock and peritonitis (severe and life-threatening inflammation of the abdominal cavity, often associated with gunshot wounds). Seventeen animals were anaesthetised and then subjected to massive blood loss by the withdrawal of 40% of their blood volume. Peritonitis was induced by the deliberate placement of sepsis-causing bacteria within the abdomen. The animals were subsequently resuscitated with intravenous fluids and various drugs. The anaesthetised pigs were monitored for 24 hours. Those still alive after this period were subsequently killed (2).

Pigs continue to be used in explosives tests. In one experiment, 18 live pigs were anaesthetised and placed a few feet away from explosives, which were then detonated. The pigs were left to bleed until almost a third of their blood had drained from their bodies, to see how long they could then be kept alive. Before the tests, scientists inserted tubes into the blood vessels and bladders of the pigs, and removed their spleens. A wire was placed in a major blood vessel to ensure it was lacerated during the explosion.

Private sector killing

In addition to the facility at Porton Down, a private agency at Alverstoke, Hants, has used goats to conduct research into decompression sickness, subjecting them to extreme pressures in sealed chambers. The tests were defended on the grounds that they provide advice for submariners on escape procedures from crippled underwater vessels, yet the French Navy confirmed that they had stopped using animals in their hyperbaric experiments, instead relying on computer models and safe human trials. A sustained campaign against the experiments put pressure on the MoD to hold an internal review, and the tests - which had gone on for 50 years - were at last halted in 2008.

Goats have often been used for underwater research ever since the well-known physiologist, John Scott Haldane, was commissioned in the early 20th century to investigate the problem of decompression sickness by the Royal Navy. It is difficult to understand why Haldane chose goats for his experiments, apart from the fact that they cannot scream. In contrast, the American Red Cross and Heart Association have long considered the dog as a good model for underwater experiments. Yet other researchers consider pigs, and even baboons, to be 'good' models. This makes the use of goats seem completely arbitrary.

Marmoset

More innocent victims

  • Porton scientists have described how monkeys, dosed with the nerve agent soman, became prostrate with violent convulsions and then lost consciousness. Monkeys given higher doses made attempts to crawl about the cage, and died an hour later;
  • Soman given to guinea pigs made them salivate, urinate, defecate and have convulsions, before dying from respiratory failure;
  • the chemical poison lewisite (a derivative of arsenic) was applied to the shaved backs of rabbits, leading to a slow (30 days) and painful death - the result of severe lung damage;
  • Porton Down scientists have also used the poison gas perfluoroisobutene to kill rats. The animals showed signs of collapse and convulsions, at which point they were put out of their misery.

Species differences

Species differences (i.e. different responses to a substance by animals and humans, and again between different species of animals) mean that no one can trust the outcome of animal experiments. In the hunt for an antidote to the nerve agent soman, for example, substances which proved effective in rats and mice have failed when tested on guinea pigs and monkeys (3).

Gulf War syndrome

Many animals have been used in experiments at Porton Down following reports of veterans of the first and second Gulf Wars suffering a range of debilitating and life-threatening conditions. They include malignancies, birth defects, brain and respiratory disorders afflicting thousands of war veterans. Marmoset and rhesus macaque monkeys are among the species widely used in an attempt to test whether the combination of vaccine jabs and tablets given to protect troops against nerve agents resulted in Gulf War illness.

Monkeys in cage

A senior UK government scientist has indicated that the monkey tests did not suggest any problem for the troops (4). In sharp contrast, US animal researchers have found a clear link between exposure to toxic chemicals and Gulf War syndrome (5). This difference highlights the 'alibi' role of animal tests. They can prove or disprove virtually anything to suit the aim of the experimenters. Is it a coincidence that the UK came up with conclusions that fitted government policy, denying the existence of a proven medical condition suffered by troops?

Despite repeated official statements that weapons research on animals is essential to protect frontline troops, the government has effectively disowned their own men and women in uniform - refusing to recognise that their ill-health could be Gulf-linked. Even before reaching the battlefield, these soldiers had been subjected to a whole cocktail of potentially toxic materials, ranging from multiple vaccines to anti-nerve agent tablets. Adding insult to injury, government confessions after the first Gulf war revealed that:

  • No proper records were kept of which vaccines and tablets individual troops received
  • Many of the troops were given these potentially hazardous treatments without their consent
  • Once back from the Gulf, sick veterans were often misdiagnosed - symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity from which many were suffering, were often mistakenly considered to be psychiatric in nature
  • Physicians treating sick veterans did not record and publish data so that a picture of the syndrome could be pieced together

The idea that experimenting on non-human primates can provide protection for humans at risk is, in any case, scientifically without validity. Marmoset and Rhesus macaque monkeys - the species used at Porton Down - are evolutionarily more distant cousins of humans than are chimpanzees. However, even if chimpanzees had been available, this study would still have been a complete waste of animal lives and public money. This thesis is supported by the fact that the chimpanzee, our closest living relative - is essentially immune to AIDS, hepatitis B and common malaria, diseases which kill millions of people every year throughout the world - because the immune system of chimpanzees and humans is significantly different. Our blood groups differ as well - humans have ABO groups while chimpanzees are AO.

Image from the war report

Ferrets

According to parliamentary written statements (6), ferrets have been used at Porton Down in food poisoning experiments. The work involved exposing the animals to the toxin produced by Staphylococcus bacteria. No formal cost/benefit analysis was applied to this research. The use of ferrets was intended to replace the use of non-human primates in such experiments. Using ferrets in place of monkeys is perhaps simply an attempt by the authorities to deflect public attention away from the use of non-human primates in research. The effects of Staphylococcus toxin are already well known, even in people. The aerosolised version of this toxin is considered to be a biological warfare agent, whose symptoms in humans include coughing, chest pain and shortness of breath. Most people recover from the symptoms after a few weeks (7). The choice of ferrets to study this toxin would appear to be as arbitrary as it is unscientific.

Alternatives to the use of animals

There can be no moral or scientific justification for needlessly injuring and killing healthy animals, considering the abundance of relevant knowledge already available in human medicine. Much of the published information has already been gleaned from actual military conflicts, ranging from WWII and the Korean War, to more recent conflicts, such as the Falklands, and the war in Afganistan. A search in the medical literature (Medline) quickly reveals such titles as 'The treatment of peritonitis in a garrison hospital' and 'Anticipated intensive care in gunshot injuries of the abdomen', all of which provide valuable information relevant to human beings.

Even more relevant is the exposure of UK doctors to real-life situations in busy civilian hospitals, such as those in the USA and South Africa. A case in point is a report in The Independent (8), describing how medical staff at two London hospitals would be taught emergency techniques on an intensive course normally used to prepare military surgeons for frontline treatment of troops in the Balkans and Afghanistan. The trauma techniques adopted by UK hospitals were based on visits to South Africa's world famous Baragwanath Hospital, which deals with about 170 gunshot victims a month, and which, unlike their UK counterparts, can deal with any part of the body before transferring patients to intensive care.

Beagle in cage

Similarly, US emergency physicians are being taught life-saving medical procedures on human cadavers. The Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) course, approved by the American College of Surgeons, gives prospective emergency physicians wishing to participate in the course the option of not using animals.

Conclusion

There is a peculiar obscenity in our continued subjection of innocent creatures to suffering and death in weapons research. For the animals used at Porton Down and other establishments, death must often come as a merciful release. We cannot help those who have already perished, but by publicising their misery we hope to be able to prevent many thousands more animals from sharing their fate.

References

  1. J Appl Toxicol. 2002 Jul-Aug;22(4):263-9.
  2. Parker SJ et al. A porcine model of sepsis resulting from the combined insults of hemorrhage and peritonitis. Shock 2000;13(4):291-6.
  3. R. Sharpe. The Cruel Deception (Thorsons, 1988) and references therein.
  4. The Guardian, 19.10.04.
  5. New Scientist, 3.11.04.
  6. Reply given by Dr Moonie to Norman Baker MP; 13.12.2000 [142117].
  7. www.cfsph.iastate.edu/DiseaseInfo/notes/StaphEnterotoxinB.pdf
  8. The Independent (6 June 2002).

Further reading:

  • 'Gassed - British Chemical Warfare Experiments on Humans at Porton Down' by investigative journalist Rob Evans. ISBN 1-84232-071-8.
  • 'Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans' by Jonathan Moreno, Routledge 2001. Documents US military experiments.
  • Malcolm Hooper speaking at the congress 'Science, Medicine and the Law' (31st Jan, 2005) organised by the Green Network Charitable Trust, in conjunction with the Environmental Law Centre (www.environmentalhealthfocus.co.uk).
  • Medline searches (Pubmed) using key words such as: gunshot wounds, peritonitis, war injuries.

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