Animal Testing in AIDS Research

Everything of importance we've learned about AIDS has come through clinical studies of patients and epidemiological studies of the communities most affected. We didn't learn AIDS was transmitted through anal sex by watching monkeys butt-fuck. -- Dan Mathews, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals I'm supposed to be told that the rights of mice, rats and monkeys can be equated with the rights of gays and lesbians? How dare they even think that? This has nothing to do with ideology. It has to do with practicality. It has to do with survival. -- Steve Michael, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Washington, D.C. It was probably just a matter of time.The people on both sides are too passionate, too single-minded to let the issue lie still anymore. It was there the whole time, and yet somehow two of the titans of grassroots activism largely managed to stay out of each other's way -- until now.The battle finally erupted in late June during the World Animal Awareness Week in Washington, D.C., where animal-rights groups under the umbrella of the National Alliance for Animals gathered to protest animal cruelty, lobby for pro-animal legislation and generate media coverage for their cause. But members of ACT UP from D.C. and San Francisco crashed the party, holding protests and press conferences of their own. Jeff Getty, a person with AIDS and outspoken member of ACT UP-Golden Gate, one of two ACT UP factions in San Francisco, was the center of controversy. In December, Getty had undergone an experimental AIDS treatment in which he received healthy bone marrow from a baboon; the animal was killed as part of the procedure. AIDS and animal-rights activists had been exchanging nasty words since word of the baboon experiment began to spread last year, but the Washington clash marked a very public start to what has become an all-out ideological war. ACT UP members, including Getty, blocked traffic at one of the Alliance for Animals events. Two activists -- one from PETA, ACT UP's direct counterpart in the conflict -- disrupted a press conference at which Getty was speaking. When CNN's camera caught the two men being dragged out of the room, "AIDS research vs. animal rights" officially had an image attached to it -- the two groups that had so many times used such tactics against the evil establishment were now using them against each other. "It doesn't appear to be the establishment vs. the renegades," observes Steven Simmons, a PETA spokesman and point man on the issue. "It appears to be the renegades vs. the renegades."If proper names must be attached to the sides in the debate, they have to be PETA, the most aggressive and, with 500,000 members and an annual budget of $13 million, the largest animal-rights group in the world; and ACT UP, an organization that has lost much strength in recent years but is still arguably the most identifiable and tenacious AIDS advocacy group going. More specifically, the names might be Simmons and Getty. Simmons, a 26-year-old activist based in New York City, has not exactly achieved the notoriety of PETA heavyweights Ingrid Newkirk and Dan Mathews, yet he is probably an even more appropriate choice to wave the PETA flag on the issue than Mathews, who is the group's top spokesman and happens to be openly gay. That's because Simmons himself has AIDS yet supports the PETA ideal that all animal testing be eliminated, saying, "Living with AIDS has only strengthened my conviction that torturing animals has nothing to do with curing the disease."Getty, a 39-year-old former admissions analyst at the University of California who now devotes himself full-time to AIDS advocacy and research, has taken the exact opposite approach. He touts the medical establishment line that animal testing is a necessary tool in all medical research, including AIDS treatment, and even charges that the actions of animal-rights activists are endangering the lives of people with AIDS. PETA and ACT UP, however, are hardly the only actors in this morality play. Standing alongside the AIDS community -- and, some would charge, co-opting its activists -- are the biomedical research and pharmaceutical industries. Those paragons of animal research and sworn enemies of PETA clearly believe that in the AIDS controversy they've finally found that magic bullet to use against animal-rights activists. Then there are the many Hollywood celebrities who have supported one or both of these causes but are now caught in the crossfire and find themselves scrambling for politically correct answers to the dilemma. A big part of the PETA-ACT UP war is the battle for "the hearts and minds," as one tabloid put it, of Hollywood. "We're David, they're Goliath," says Steve Michael of ACT UP-Washington, a PETA opponent. "But they picked on the wrong organization." As it turns out, the baboon did not have to die. It would be somewhat unrealistic to think that PETA would have reacted differently to the Getty experiment had the animal lived -- after all, the group had been waging at least a modest campaign against such cross-species transplants for several years, and its doctrine on animal testing is abolitionist -- but one imagines that the issue would be a little less sexy had the baboon simply "donated" the bone marrow. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration, which approved the experiment, did not require that the baboon be killed. According to Dr. Philip Noguci of the FDA division that examined the proposed procedure, it was the research team headed by Dr. Suzanne Ilstad of the University of Pittsburgh who made the call to kill and freeze the baboon, apparently as a measure to preserve the baboon's body exactly as it was at the time of the procedure in case Getty caught some exotic virus from the animal. (Ilstad was out of the country and unavailable for comment.) Even Getty says, "I personally told them if they could keep the animal alive to please do so." Depending on whom you talk to, the experiment was either an utter failure or a reason to hope. The idea was to create a parallel immune system, one resistant to HIV as a baboon's is, within Getty's body. A few weeks after the operation, however, the baboon cells had disappeared from Getty's system -- the second immune system never took hold. On the optimistic side, Getty apparently did not contract any new viruses, nor was he otherwise harmed by the procedure. In fact, he claims that his health has "improved dramatically," though he and the researchers are still trying to pinpoint why. It could have been the chemotherapy treatments he received along with the transplant.Still, there is a whiff of a salvage operation in what the Getty camp says. The FDA was never very hopeful about the transplant strategy, and -- perhaps more telling -- neither was the American Foundation for AIDS Research, even though it agrees wholeheartedly with Getty's position on animal testing. "Here, we felt it was a mistake," says Jay Blotcher, director of media relations. "It shouldn't have been done -- but not because an animal was killed." At any rate, the experiment was ground zero of the animal rights-AIDS research dispute. Except for a quote here and there, for years PETA chose to lay low on AIDS research, even though much of that work clearly conflicted with the group's belief that people have no right to use animals -- whether it's eating them, wearing them or testing things on them. Simmons explains that PETA has a lot of issues to address and that it has never had fantastic luck convincing the media to pick up the animal testing issue, so the AIDS research angle was not given top priority. But it's likely, too, that PETA was none too thrilled about taking on such a hornets' nest. The potential for PR backfire is great, and though there's not necessarily an inherent connection between AIDS and animal-rights activists, the link between the two communities seems more than coincidental -- several activists interviewed for this story on both sides of the issue note that at one time or another they've worked for the other cause.For whatever reason -- be it the heavy media coverage of the Getty experiment, the possibility that its use of a primate rather than rodents might rouse more public sympathy or the belief that it was simply time to bite the bullet -- PETA went on the offensive. In April, the group held a press conference calling for the FDA not to allow any more baboon bone-marrow transplants. Meanwhile, Getty's anti-animal-rights venom had been building. He says that while recovering from the procedure he received hate letters saying such things as "I wish the baboon had lived and you had died.""They attacked a person with AIDS on his deathbed," Getty fumes. "I am not a victim. I am not going to be a pawn in their crusade." Whether his attackers were actually PETA members or not, Getty steadfastly believes they were, and that was certainly part of his motivation in arranging protests in Washington, D.C. For the campaign, he hooked up with Americans for Medical Progress, a PR front group for the biomedical research industry formed five years ago to counteract animal-rights activists. That gave PETA more ammunition for its argument that many AIDS activists have been seduced by corporate nasties -- the biomedical research and pharmaceutical industries, which are united in their interest in animal testing. Actually, Getty, ACT UP-Washington and Americans for Medical Progress unabashedly discuss their cooperative relationship. The industry group hosted ACT UP-Golden Gate members who came in to D.C. for the protest and flew Getty in for its own press conference. Later, it flew ACT UP-Washington's Steve Michael to Chicago so that he could do advance work on his group's activities there during the Democratic National Convention. Such involvement with the establishment has been a longstanding source of division in ACT UP. That was the case in San Francisco, where the organization split into the Golden Gate and San Francisco chapters -- the latter considered more radical and unwilling to infiltrate the government and corporate systems. The two groups now despise each other and have taken up opposite sides on the animal testing issue, ACT UP-San Francisco being the only chapter in the country that officially supports PETA -- though its value as an ally is questionable since the chapter has essentially been excommunicated by its brethren for alleged physical violence against persons with AIDS.In New York City, a group of ACT UP members split off to form the Treatment Action Group, which focuses completely on research and treatment. TAG is only too happy to take donations from pharmaceutical companies, which amount to as much as 17 percent of its total revenue in a given year. But none of the groups apologizes for taking money or other support from biomed or drug interests. They all claim that they'll take the money but won't let it affect their views, and that if a company thinks it's co-opting the group, well, as Spencer Cox of TAG puts it, "Go ahead and try." "I think it's time ACT UP started taking money from anybody, anyplace, anytime," says Michael. "I'm not a whore. You can't buy me, and you can't buy ACT UPs."Still, it's clear that the association with industry groups is somewhat distasteful to activists like Michael, who would rather not be chummy with an industry that he regularly protests on other issues, such as the obscenely high price of AIDS drugs."The reality is, it is not a pretty alliance," Michael says. One person who has no qualms about it, however, is Americans for Medical Progress President Susan Paris, who seems elated to have found an ally against PETA, and her group is playing the issue up big. In a press release on the Washington protests, AMP went so far as to proclaim that the anti-research animal-rights agenda was the "greatest immediate threat to the lives of people with HIV and AIDS.""This," she says, "is the strongest message I've seen in five years against animal rights."When all the rhetoric is stripped away, the real argument, as in any animal-rights issue, centers on the fundamental relationship between humans and animals. There is really no room for interpretation. Staunch animal-rights activists believe that the lives of people are no more valuable than the lives of animals. Period. Many AIDS activists -- along with much of the general public -- simply believe humans do take precedence. Ask people on that side to support their argument, and they have a tough time doing it. It is simply a baseline assumption most humans make, an assumption that animal-rights groups challenge. If that were the only issue at stake, the debate probably wouldn't have much depth. But PETA, as it does in other campaigns, tries to argue that animal testing is wrong for another reason -- essentially, that it's an antiquated and ineffective mode of research. The group advocates study of people with the disease, human tissue and computer models as better alternatives to animal testing. While most AIDS activists recognize the usefulness of such measures, they still see animal testing as crucial to finding treatments."All of the great drugs in the system right now benefited from animal research," says Mike Shriver, director of public policy for the National Association of People with AIDS. "All of them." Depending on whom you talk to, animals are used in AIDS research a little less than or about as often as they are in other kinds of medical research. The majority of animals used are rodents, which should have no bearing on PETA's basic position. Nevertheless, the group seems to focus on animals that people can identify with -- primates, cats, dogs. Animals are used primarily in two ways: they are infected with HIV-like viruses, and the toxicity of potential AIDS drugs is tested on them. Animal-rights activists argue that the immune systems of humans and even other primates are too different to usefully compare how they respond to viruses, pointing out that researchers have been largely unsuccessful in infecting primates with HIV. Simmons charges that the primate version of the virus, simian immunodeficiency virus, is very different from HIV and that only when monkeys are infected in the lab with SIV do they actually get sick from it. In general, animal-rights groups say that animal tests lead to too many misleading conclusions.Anti-animal-research forces also attack toxicity tests, saying too many unsafe drugs are approved based on animal trials. Virtually all drugs that receive FDA approval are tested that way before being used in humans. Simmons admits that he knows of no AIDS drugs that have been taken off the market because they were unsafe, but he points to persistent concerns about the safety of AZT to support his argument. Dr. Stephen Kauffman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee, a New York City-based group that assesses research techniques, essentially agrees with Simmons. In fact, he co-authored a paper on the problems of animal models with Simmons and another doctor -- though Kauffman, a Cleveland-based opthamologist who also studies research trends, says his group has no connection to PETA. To Kauffman, the issue is a matter of probability; there are too many misleading conclusions mixed in with those that can be applied to humans."With monkey data in hand," he says, "you're no closer to the truth." While AIDS activists will admit that the animal model is far from perfect, they say the idea that research can be done without them is ludicrous. Computer models and test-tube studies of human tissue can't even come close to replicating the human immune system, they say. According to Cox of the Treatment Action Group, animal testing was instrumental, for instance, in assessing the risks and benefits of AZT for use in preventing transmission from mother to child."Animal models are imperfect," he says, "but they're the best we've got." Even Kauffman will admit that animal testing for toxicity and side effects is "where the question gets a little murky." Though he doesn't see it as a necessity, he doesn't deny that it may have some value. "Perhaps some things that would've been harmful to humans are discovered," he says. "I don't think it's a cut-and-dried issue." Charles Suntheimer, a person with AIDS and former ACT UP member in San Francisco and Los Angeles, now lives in Schenectady and is far removed from those very active metropolitan groups. Suntheimer works with an HIV care network that disseminates AIDS information to PWAs and providers in upstate New York. Here, where the Capital Region's ACT UP has all but dried up, he is able to distance himself from the bitter rhetoric coming out of ACT UP and PETA on the national front."This is a tough one," says Suntheimer. "In one sense I think it's really arrogant to think we are superior enough to test on animals. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that there have been breakthroughs. "I wouldn't want to see any [group] control the debate, because then you get an unrealistic view. If you just put those two out there, you're not going to get a solution because they're too far apart." Right now, though, the debate is essentially PETA vs. ACT UP. Neither group's leaders seem in the mood to compromise, and the rhetoric is likely to get nastier and nastier. Both sides claim that they have support in the AIDS community. Though it's hard to gauge the mood of the entire AIDS community, the Getty camp certainly has the support of leaders in some of the more mainstream AIDS advocacy groups. "PETA are just slitting their throats," says Blotcher of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, "when they put forth the argument that even if animal testing led to a cure for AIDS, they wouldn't want it." "What they have publicly said," adds Shriver of the National Association of People with AIDS, "is that my life as a person with HIV disease does not matter."Of course, PETA has not said those things. The group's position is that even if a cure were found, it would still be against animal testing, and Simmons is quick to argue that PETA never encourages people with AIDS not to take drugs simply because they were tested on animals. Not surprisingly, both sides in the controversy are attempting to smear each other. Simmons refers to ACT UP's Michael as a "known criminal," based on a story on alleged financial shenanigans in ACT UP reported by Washington's City Paper a few years ago. Michael counters that PETA's members are "rat liberationists."Meanwhile, both animal and AIDS activists are trying to curry favor and consolidate control in the celebrity world. Initially, it looks like the well-heeled PETA has the upper hand. Americans for Medical Progress' more prominent attempts to win over or intimidate celebrities have not really paid dividends -- at least not yet. When the group tried to pressure stars to wear red ribbons in support of people with AIDS for the Oscars, warning, "You can't be for AIDS research and animal rights," Whoopi Goldberg made a point of saying she was wearing a red ribbon and a fake fur coat to represent her love for animals. Staunch PETA supporter Alec Baldwin threatened to sue the Americans for Medical Progress when it campaigned against his views. The group claims that Melissa Etheridge "retracted" her support for PETA in light of the AIDS controversy, but the singer's publicist counters that she did nothing of the sort. Etheridge was, however, quoted in a tabloid as saying she had decided "not to do any more visible work for PETA."The battle has just begun, however, and one gets the feeling that the majority of people with AIDS have not chimed in yet. When they've had enough time to digest the developing controversy, many PWAs may not be inclined to side with either camp. As Suntheimer mulls over the issue, one thing that comes to mind is his experience in taking care of pets whose masters have died of AIDS."Quite frankly," he says, "I've seen a lot of these animals mourn."

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