Martje Fentener van Vlissigen 03
Martje Fentener van Vlissingen, head of the EDC.

Scientific research has not been deemed an essential service by the government. What consequences does this have for animal experiments? Erasmus MC researchers play an indispensable role in the fight against COVID-19 when it comes to understanding the disease and the development and testing of a medicine or vaccine to combat it. The EDC is important in this respect. The centre also has special in-house equipment that is desperately needed right now, says Fentener van Vlissingen.

What was your work like before COVID-19?

“At the Erasmus centre for animal research we have all the experiments which involve animal testing under our roof. This way we can make sure that all legal requirements are complied with as much as possible and are also able to bundle the research where we can. I supervise around sixty people for that. We do experiments on mice and zebra fish, but also on monkeys and pigs.”

Back in 2017 you said in the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that you are all working towards minimising animal testing. How far have you got with that?

“The trend over the last few years has been that the number of animals used in animal testing is declining steadily. This is due, for instance, to the fact that we are gaining more and more information from each animal and are consequently doing increasingly more efficient and high-quality work. The political reality in the Netherlands, and also in Europe, is that we do as little animal testing as possible. In the Netherlands, animals have a high moral status. I’m a veterinarian and that’s my take on it as well.

“At the same time, we cannot afford to eliminate all animal testing. The technology is simply not yet advanced enough to test everything on humans. That makes it a difficult and, in some circles, controversial subject. What people sometimes forget in the discussion about animal testing is that it’s also about human lives. In the last twenty years we have made a lot of progress in cancer research and that could not have happened without animal testing. That’s a consideration that has to be constantly weighed up.”

How has the coronavirus affected your work?

“As soon as the virus broke out in China, we noticed it here in Rotterdam. Our infectious disease group plays a prominent role worldwide in research on the virus, for example, advising the World Health Organisation (WHO). It’s not entirely coincidental that Erasmus MC started the research right at the time of the outbreak. We were also involved in research on SARS-COV-1 and MERS (both are coronaviruses, ed.).

“For research on these coronaviruses, animal experiments are unavoidable. For example, they are needed to characterise what the interaction of the virus is with the host. In humans, you can only examine patients if they already have it. You can’t deliberately infect them and see what happens on day one, three and five. In monkeys, for example, you can.”

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The corona research in Rotterdam is undeniably essential, but those are other experiments, aren’t they?

“You can argue about whether the other research is essential or not. It may not save people in the short term, but it does in the long run, because it helps in the development of medicines, for instance. What we did was see what research we can do on a case-by-case basis.”

How does that work in animal testing?

“Ethically speaking, it is really problematic to abandon an ongoing experiment. We would have to kill the animals so that we could restart the experiment with new animals at a later date. That’s not in line with our sense of restraint and aim of keeping animal testing to a minimum. We don’t kill animals unnecessarily.”

Not even because of COVID-19?

“No. Some animals that were still in cages unfortunately had to be put down because they would have become too old for any experiments. But that hasn’t resulted in a higher than average mortality rate. We have looked at what we can continue to do in a responsible manner. Our staff has continued to work, partly on site, although with a minimum of staff. We have applied ‘social distancing’ in our work methodsAnd we have asked all researchers which research should continue so as not to have to kill any animals too soon. To prevent the virus from spreading among the staff, everyone is tested at their own request, even if they just have a runny nose.”

Does that make things busier or quieter there for you?

“We’re not only doing animal testing at the moment; we also have extra work to do because of COVID-19. For example, we sterilise the face masks used by employees at the hospital and in intensive care. Because we work with animals that need to be protected against diseases, we have advanced sterilisation equipment. This comes in handy now.”

“So, it’s not quiet at all what with all these extra tasks and the research that is still partly going ahead or has been stepped up because of COVID-19. We are asking quite a lot of our people. We’re running a marathon together. Let’s just leave it at that.”

How do you view the outbreak as someone who is dealing with it in practice?

“We now see the re-evaluation of occupations on the front line. I sincerely hope that we will continue to re-evaluate them. I also hope that in the future we will no longer hop on a plane for every meeting but realise that this can be done just as well online. I also hope that we will do a lot with the findings of this real-life experiment in which public life has come to a standstill and which has unique effects on air quality, for one thing. As a collective, we can learn a lot from that.”