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Impact of animal research in the COVID-19 response

Throughout history, research involving animals has been essential to our survival during epidemics and pandemics caused by infectious diseases. For example, animal research was vital in the development and production of the smallpox vaccine which eventually led to its eradication in 1980; until then, smallpox killed between 300-500 million people in its 12,000-year existence. Likewise, nearly forty years of research using monkeys, rats, and mice led to the introduction of the polio vaccine in the 1950s that has since saved millions of lives, eradicating the disease from most continents.

The COVID-19 pandemic, a disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was first identified in China in December 2019, and caused over 200,000 deaths globally in its first 4 months and led to unprecedented disruption to our lives. Overcoming this pandemic has and will continue to require an unparalleled collective effort from the global scientific and medical communities. Animal research that is building on the work previously funded by the MRC has played a vital role in these efforts and helped UK scientists lead the way in developing vaccines and treatments against COVID-19.

The MRC is supporting a portfolio of research relating to coronavirus. Below are just a few of the examples of how animal research is making an impact in the fight against COVID-19.

MRC funded animal research and COVID-19 vaccine trials

Professor Sarah Gilbert and her team at the University of Oxford spearheaded a vaccine trial in which they used a safe version of an adenovirus (a virus that can cause a common cold-like illness). Previous work funded by the MRC through the UK Vaccine Network used this adenovirus (known as ChAdOx1) by Professor Gilbert in the production of vaccines against the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus. The team has engineered ChAdOx1 to make a specific coronavirus protein, known as the Spike protein, from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As a result, our immune system should in theory be able to recognise the Spike protein as ‘foreign’ and form antibodies against it, and then attack the SARS-CoV-2 virus and stop it from causing an infection. By ‘bluffing’ the body in this way, and slipping in parts of the virus that do not harm, but induce the release of antibodies, it is hoped that long lasting immunity can be provided through vaccination. The vaccine testing involved animal trials in ferrets and non-human primates at the Public Health England (PHE) laboratories. The team also  collaborated with researchers at the BBSRC funded Pirbright Institute to study the effect of this vaccine in pigs. Under normal circumstances, animal work must be completed before human trials can start, but because similar vaccines have worked safely in trials for other diseases, the work was accelerated and happened in parallel, and led to the approval by the Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on December 30, 2020. This vaccine, commonly known as the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine, has now been administered to millions of people worldwide.

Professor Robin Shattock and his team from Imperial College London are currently working to create a viable vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, using a new technology they have developed that can potentially produce vaccines much faster than conventional methods.  With MRC funding, the team has successfully generated a novel SARS-Cov-2 vaccine candidate a mere two weeks after receiving the genetic sequence of the virus. Animal experiments began in early February 2020, with encouraging early results in mice. Following testing of their vaccine in monkeys in collaboration with researchers in Paris, combined Phase I and II trials have taken place simultaneously, with results of Phase I now published.

Professor Alain Townsend’s team at the MRC Human Immunology Unit (MRC HIU), in collaboration with MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, Radcliffe Department of Medicine, University of Oxford and the BBSRC’s Pirbright Institute, have shown that a new potential vaccine against COVID-19, named RBD-SpyVLP, produces a strong antibody response in mice and pigs, providing vital information for the further development of the vaccine. Although this type of vaccine is not a competitor for the first wave of vaccines, it is hoped that it will be useful as a standalone vaccine or as a booster for individuals primed with a different COVID-19 vaccine. Investing in the research and development of the second generation of COVID-19 vaccines is important because they will help fill gaps in efficacy against novel variants while also addressing issues around production and distribution e.g. the requirement for cold chain supply logistics. Multiple vaccines also allow us to have a much better chance of having the volume of doses we need to help contain the virus globally. More information about the Oxford-produced RBD-SpyVLP vaccine candidate can be found here.

Animal research and antibody therapy

Another approach for treating COVID-19 involves antibody therapy, where rather than inducing our own immune system to produce the appropriate antibodies through vaccination, the antibodies are raised in animals instead and purified. Dr Stuart Dowall at the PHE laboratory at Porton Down is investigating this approach with funding from the MRC. Dr Dowall and his team will produce antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein in sheep in Australia; the antibodies purified from sheep plasma will then be used as a therapeutic and tested to see how well they can treat COVID-19.

Safety and efficacy of COVID-19 treatments

Animals are also key for evaluating the protective efficacy and safety of any new treatments, including COVID-19. Mice, specially bred for studying COVID-19 are being used by Professor Xiao-Ning Xu at Imperial College London, who has MRC funding to test a monoclonal antibody treatment that may be effective against different types of coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2. Professor Xu will also test these monoclonal antibodies in monkeys at the UK’s National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, because human antibodies are more likely to interact with other components of the immune system in species that are closely related to us, compared to mice.

The UK’s extensive scientific expertise is ideally positioned to lead the way in responding to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This expertise is only possible because of the decades of knowledge gained from funding excellent discovery science, and the advances gained from research involving animals.

Visit this Interactive Global Map to see where Covid-19 research involving animal models is located in the world. For more information on how animal research is contributing to research on coronavirus, and to medicine in general, visit Understanding Animal Research.