Vivotecnia Redivivus: a Disgraced Company Rides Again

Last April, in a post about maltreatment of animals at the Vivotecnia contract research company in Madrid, I wrote that “the public and official response is certain to ruin it” [see ‘Scenes from inside the Cruelty Business’, linked in the notes below]. A correction is now necessary to that naïve assessment of the situation. Vivotecnia is not at all ruined. Among the contracts continuing to keep it busy are four with public institutions. The most recent of these has been agreed with the University of Barcelona and its partners at the Barcelona Science Park (a University venture); 38 beagle puppies are being used to test a therapy for hepatic fibrosis (more about this project later). Altogether, these four contracts are worth over a million euros, comfortably mopping up the cash penalty that Vivotecnia has been required to pay to the Comunidad de Madrid, which is the licensing authority for its animal research.

dogs at vivotecnia-06

For yes, Vivotecnia was indeed punished. The fine for two “very serious” and 23 “serious” infractions of Spanish law 32/2007 (on the “exploitación, transporte, experimentación y sacrificio” of kept animals) was set at €37,827, about one third of the maximum possible. Vivotecnia’s licence to use animals was suspended, but for a few weeks only, and no animals were removed even temporarily from the company’s perfunctory care. The restoring of the licence is said to have been conditional upon certain “corrective and preventive measures”, including CCTV in the labs and a veterinary team responsible for the animals’ welfare (was there not one before?).

That seems to be the new situation at Vivotecnia, then, though in fact there is little certainty about it, rather less than there was when at least someone inside the lab was recording what went on. The company itself has naturally kept quiet about the whole business, and official statements have been only modestly informative. One of the Spanish government’s own ministers has complained of an “information wall” blocking visibility to the public and to the national government. As this suggests, there is a much greater delegation of laboratory supervision and discipline in Spain than obtains, for instance, in the UK. Most of the responsibility is vested in the sites themselves, with accordingly more scope for institutional delinquencies of the sort filmed at Vivotecnia.

An information wall, certainly, but no lack of uplifting wordage aimed at calming the commotion. As an instance, the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain (COSCE) published a statement a few weeks ago, deploring the various hostile and inaccurate “news items” in circulation. It sketches out, instead, the “reality of research with animal models in Spain”. This research, it seems, is not only “essential” for human and animal health, but is also “strictly regulated and supervised”, with a commitment to “transparency” supported by more public institutions than any such agreements in other countries can boast. (Vivotecnia is not signed up to it, of course, and indeed is not named or even hinted at in COSCE’s far-from-transparent statement.) As part of its reassurances, COSCE puts special emphasis on the efficacy of two varieties of ethical machinery for safeguarding animal welfare and driving down the number of animals used: the 3Rs principles (reduction, refinement, replacement) and the local ethics committees.

On Vivotecnia’s own web-site there is a very similar account of the necessity and efficient regulation of animal research, with likewise no allusion to the recent scandal. But that scandal has highlighted the weaknesses of the much-flourished 3Rs. Most of the testing carried out by such contract research organizations as Vivotecnia is mandated by law; there can be no question of ‘replacement’, then. Besides, even at their best these principles only govern the design of an experiment or trial; they have nothing to say about the treatment of animals once the experiment starts, still less about the general husbandry of them. I suspect, anyway, that because so much of the work done at CROs is necessarily routine in design – dosing with a substance in such and such quantities, over such and such a period of time – the 3Rs are appreciated more as a PR point than as a prompt to good science and ethics.

That suspicion is surely confirmed by the one item posted, on 19 July 2019, under ‘Latest News’ on Vivotecnia’s web-site. This announces an exciting collaboration with Spain’s Centre for Cancer Research in “the complex task of developing animal models of lung cancer induced by the same inducing agent as in humans, that is tobacco smoke, and with a molecular biology and histology as close as possible to that found in smoking lung cancer patients.” Vivotecnia, with its “ample experience . . . of exposing different animal species to toxic agents such as tobacco” will do that part of the work, and also the subsequent testing of different therapies. The point is that “To date, there are no animal models of lung cancer induced by tobacco”. This project to create them is, then, the precise opposite of ‘replacement’. As to whether such research is “essential”, I need say nothing.

The ethics committees are not, any more than the 3Rs, the controlling force they’re claimed to be – at least, if Vivotecnia’s example is in any way representative. As I’ve mentioned, these local bodies carry much of the responsibility for ensuring animal welfare in Spanish laboratories, and they are themselves little supervised from above. Vivotecnia’s own committee, it emerges, included in its membership three of the company’s managers, including its founder and CEO, Andrés König. These are people whose primary interest would presumably be the commercial success of the company rather than the welfare of its animals, and who would have, also, the authority to insist on their point of view at committee meetings. König himself is not a vet by training, as those who set up these animal research businesses often are. His special expertise, we’re told on Linkedin (told, presumably, by the man himself), is in “company start-up, business model definition and implementation, strategic design and execution, as well as funding and exiting of financial investors”: vital skills, no doubt, but not likely to do the animals any good.

However, perhaps the composition of the committee did not matter very much, for there is some doubt whether it was holding meetings at all. An account of the situation, published in the Spanish paper El Pais, calls it “el comité ‘zombie’ “ and reports that many of the 177 employees at Vivotecnia, notably those of them doing the actual handling of the animals during tests, were unaware of its existence.

That fine of €37,827 was an institutional matter, imposed upon Vivotecnia by the regional authority. There is also a judicial proceeding under way, the prosecution of some individuals for animal cruelty. This will take much longer to reach conclusions, if it does so at all, but already the employee who secretly filmed the place – a veterinary technician called, perhaps pseudonymously, Carlotta Saorsa – has been giving preliminary evidence to a judge. It’s this evidence that has provided much of what’s now known about Vivotecnia’s way of working, and that has been keeping the scandal in the public eye, in Spain at least. The newspaper El Pais has been especially vigorous in reporting it all.

ub-graffiti

In such circumstances, you may wonder why the University of Barcelona and its other research partners should take this short cut to notoriety of inviting Vivotecnia to collaborate in the studies of hepatic fibrosis. The university has recently defended its action in a public statement, insisting that it has “exhaustively reviewed” the terms of the project to make sure it will conform to all regulations. The contract, we’re told, went through a “scrupulous process of tender”, and Vivotecnia’s was the winning bid. Poor university, now harried by demonstrations, its walls daubed with ‘Stop Vivotecnia’ and similar advice! The simplest explanation at present suggested in the Spanish media for what seems a wilful blunder is that Vivotecnia’s winning bid was in fact the only one received. But anyway, what has embarrassed the university will very likely have helped in the brisk rehabilitation of Vivotecnia.

It’s a very unpleasant story. And the scenes of careless maltreatment and deliberate cruelty in the video are now substantiated by that evidence given by Carlotta Saorsa about the lab culture at Vivotecnia. Expressing concern for the animals was apparently regarded as foolishness: the senior staff were uninterested, and the others (such as those seen in the film) ridiculed it. By the way, Vivotecnia claims in its web-site that care for the animals is not only “of paramount importance” as a matter of “our moral responsibility”, but also essential to “research excellence”; no surprise, then, to hear that test results were being falsified when things went wrong. Even the science, for which these animals suffered, was unsound.

william hogarth the four stages of cruelty_ second stage of cruelty

All this information has come to us through the bravery and dedication of one person. It’s the situation so vividly represented in the series of prints which the artist William Hogarth published in 1751 under the title The Four Stages of Cruelty. The scenes of cruelty to animals that Hogarth pictured in them show callousness as a catching disease, entailing misery upon larger and larger animals as the sick persons grow into adulthood, until humans too become the victims. But in each of the four pictures there is one humane person, hardly noticeable but remonstrating or at least unhardened, who keeps the way open to moral rescue. (Hogarth himself was one such; more about him next time.) Then the rest of us can do our numerous and much easier bit to make that way broad and permanent. In the present case, it can include signing the petitions linked immediately below, one of them to save and re-home the 38 beagles (if that’s still possible), the other a more general appeal to the European Commission to confirm and expedite its declared course toward a scientific research scene with no animals in it. Please sign if you can!

Notes and references:

The Change.org petition ‘Salvar a los 38 cachorros Beagle’ (Save the 38 beagle puppies) can be signed here: https://www.change.org/p/universidad-de-barcelona-salvar-a-los-38-cachorros-beagle-del-laboratorio-vivotecnia-de-su-ejecuci%C3%B3n?redirect=false. There’s a separate English version here: https://www.change.org/p/unibarcelona-detengamos-el-asesinato-de-38-beagles-2?redirect=false. And Humane Society International’s petition to the European Commission can be signed here: https://www.hsi.org/news-media/hsi-petition-to-european-commission-on-animal-testing/

The original post in this blog about Vivotecnia is here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2021/04/

The complaint from Spain’s Minister for Social Rights is reported here, with also some insight into the way powers over animal research are distributed in Spain: https://then24.com/2021/06/23/letter-from-ione-belarra-to-ayuso-for-the-opening-of-vivotecnia-coordination-attempts-have-been-unsuccessful/

The COSCE statement, issued last month, can be seen here: https://www.eara.eu/post/the-reality-of-research-with-animal-models-in-spain-cosce-statement

Vivotecnia’s ‘latest news’ about the smoking research is featured here: https://www.vivotecnia.com/programa-retos-colaboracion/

The ‘zombie’ piece in El Pais, one of several excellent reports on the Vivotecnia subject, is online here: https://elpais.com/espana/madrid/2021-06-25/el-comite-zombie-que-no-velo-por-la-etica-animal-en-vivotecnia.html#?rel=mas

The University of Barcelona’s defensive statement about the beagle research is here: https://www.ub.edu/web/ub/es/menu_eines/noticies/2022/02/004.html

The illustrations show (1) beagle dogs at Vivotecnia, (2) writing on a wall at the University of Barcelona, and (3) a detail from the second of Hogarth’s series of prints, showing the coachman Tom Nero (whose career of violence the prints primarily narrate) thrashing his collapsed horse, while some lawyers riding in the vehicle look to their own safety, and one man takes a note of Nero’s identity.

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