Where Oxford’s At: News from the Forefront

Oxford University has posted its animal research statistics for 2019, showing a total of 229,163 ‘procedures’. Most of these animals were mice (222,206), but there were also rats, ferrets, fish, guinea pigs, junglefowl (7 of these), and non-human primates (8). This 2019 total shows a rise of 4% over last year’s, and is the second highest at Oxford in the period since numbers became available in 2007. The highest was recorded in 2017 (236,429). Some UK universities that use animals in research have not yet posted their equivalent numbers, but Oxford will certainly head the list for quantity, with Edinburgh (198,517) probably second, and University College London (186,424) third.

As to the PSDLH (it’s a new Home Office abbreviation for “pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm”), only about 0.5% of the procedures at Oxford came into the ‘severe’ category. However, three out of the eight monkeys did. That comes as something of a surprise, since a paragraph on this same page headed ‘What is done to primates?’ gives a quite attractive account of their admittedly brief lives. Many of them apparently find the OU primatecomputer games which test their learning and memory powers “stimulating”. After surgery to remove “a very small amount of brain tissue”, the monkeys are “up and about again within hours” – a nice suggestion of bustle and purpose. The brain damage itself is “minor and unnoticeable in normal behaviour”. And so on. The photograph which is used to illustrate this tonic account (as reproduced here) seems likewise to discredit it, but perhaps the image is intended to represent active curiosity rather than despondency.

In previous years, the VERO blog has presented in tabular form much of the year’s statistical information, but there seems little point to that (a link to the page is provided in the notes below). These tables of numbers are always subtly misleading, since the larger numbers seem actually to depreciate the lives being counted: the seven chickens are more conceivable than the hundreds of thousands of mice. Then the numbers are misleading also in the appearance they give of dealing with an intelligible and consistent unit, the ‘procedure’. To some extent the university’s account gets round this problem by making clear that the number of procedures in 2019 was exactly the same as the number of animals: so animals are the real unit, and of course we know what they are. The fact remains that although a procedure may be something as slight as an injection, a point habitually made in animal research PR, it may also be a whole course of injections, yet still count as one unit. Oxford’s vaccine trials, for instance, take blood monthly from rhesus macaque monkeys. And of course there are procedures very much more gruelling than an injection. Counting by animals does nothing to clarify the haze over what really happens.

The severity categories do provide some guidance, since the Home Office requires that judgements as to category must “relate to both the duration and intensity of pain, suffering or distress.” Thus “prolonged suffering at a mild level should be considered [i.e. classified as] moderate, and prolonged suffering at moderate should be considered severe”, unless there is adequate time for recovery “between procedures”, or even for “habituation” on the part of the animal. The Home Office does, you see, grapple with this problem, but note the plural ‘procedures’, referring as it does to the experience of one animal and therefore to one countable procedure. So much for the procedure as a unit. It’s not a unit; it’s an undeclared collective.

The Oxford University numbers, then, are only modestly informative. Moreover, they necessarily leave uncounted the animal research which is implied in the university’s work but is done at other institutions, perhaps by private UK companies, or perhaps – science being an international collaborative enterprise – at laboratories elsewhere in the world. See, for instance, the university’s recent research on Covid-19. A New York Times news story about that research on 27 April, under the characteristically excitable heading ‘In Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine, an Oxford Group Leaps Ahead’, told how a vaccine prepared at Oxford was being tested at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana, an establishment belonging to America’s National Institutes of Health. Scientists there, the New York Times said,

inoculated six rhesus macaque monkeys with single doses of the Oxford vaccine. The animals were then exposed to heavy quantities of the virus that is causing the pandemic – exposure that had consistently sickened other monkeys in the lab. But more than 28 days later, all six were healthy, said Vincent Munster [no relation], the researcher who conducted the test.

You’ll notice that this one brief testing project used at least as many monkeys as Oxford University have declared for the whole of 2019, and under a much laxer ethical regime. Whether Oxford actually requested this research or even repudiated it is not stated; either way it will have formed part of the research history of the vaccine.

Oxford’s own numbers haven’t changed much over the last five years – a few percentage up or down each year, with no discernible direction of travel. Contrary to the university’s assurances at the time, the new Biomedical Sciences Building did boost animal research after 2008, and was no doubt intended to, but now the numbers seem to have steadied. But of course there’s nothing stationary in Oxford’s science scene otherwise. Two very recent news stories illustrate the point.

Just last month the university announced a gift of funds from the firm Bulgari, purveyor of “perfumes that exude elegance” and other necessaries to the exceedingly rich. This money will fund two research positions and some scientific equipment, all related to the study and creation of vaccines. Another donation very recently announced was £80 million from the Reuben Foundation, which will support the founding of a whole new graduate college. It will be called Reuben College and will specialize in the sciences, including artificial intelligence.

These two windfalls are just the newsworthier moments in a general story of constant enlargement of science at Oxford, whose cityscape is characterized as much  by cranes as by spires these days, neither of them doing much dreaming. It means – to take the good news first – that animal research at Oxford is, proportionately, diminishing. Diminishing at present, that is: because – the more ominous implication – this boom in science might easily (would certainly, if controls and opposition were relaxed) come back round to animal research.

At the moment most of Oxford’s science news is naturally enough about Covid-19, and we’re told in the web-pages dedicated to it that “Researchers across the University are at the forefront of global efforts to understand the coronavirus”. These ‘Coronavirus Research’ pages include, somewhat incongruously, an interview with a professor of English, perhaps mainly to justify that phrase “across the University” (with its pleasant echo of a Beatles song). The piece is titled ‘Catastrophe, not war stories: how the Covid-19 crisis will be written?’ It’s good to see the humanities playing their part in keeping Oxford at the forefront of global efforts but, not surprisingly, the professor couldn’t really say what sort of fiction will be written about the pandemic, or indeed anything else very enlightening. She did suggest that, using war stories as our model, we should expect a “lag” before any such fiction appeared. Not too much of a lag, let’s hope, or the Covid pandemic may have been superseded, if there’s truth in a news story from China a week ago:

A new flu virus found in Chinese pigs has become more infectious to humans and needs to be watched closely in case it becomes a potential ‘pandemic virus’ . . . although experts said there is no imminent threat.

Well, well! Perhaps the university should send its experimental psychologists to that Covid forefront, and set them to understanding, not coronavirus itself, but this strange refusal of the species Homo sapiens to live up to the name it chose for itself.


Notes and references:

The main page for information about animal research at Oxford University, from which the above numbers and quotations are taken, is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

The quoted Home Office guidance on severity categories appears in ‘Advisory notes’ published on 1 January 2014, and can be accessed here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/276014/NotesActualSeverityReporting.pdf

The New York Times report is online here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/world/europe/coronavirus-vaccine-update-oxford.html

For its brand-name, Bulgari uses a spelling which only makes sense in Roman capitals, Bvlgari, a pretentious device which the university’s press release religiously follows. The quotation is from Bulgari’s web-site, of course.

The news of Oxford’s work on Covid-19, including the quoted interview, is featured online here: https://www.research.ox.ac.uk/Area/coronavirus-research

The quotation about a new flu virus comes from France 24’s online news serve here: https://www.france24.com/en/20200630-chinese-researchers-warn-of-new-flu-virus-in-pigs-with-human-pandemic-risk

The 2018 numbers at Oxford University were reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/oxfords-annual-numbers-with-added-mistakes/

The photograph of a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building is reproduced with permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office.

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