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Politics of Science

Year In Science

Jan 13, 2002 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:07 AM


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Better, Kinder BurgersAnimal-rights advocates are getting more sophisticated—and more effective—but the specter of violence still lurks in the background of their continuing political crusade.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claimed victory last June after more than 950 "Murder King" protest rallies spread over five months prompted Burger King, the world's second largest fast-food chain, to announce new guidelines for its meat and egg suppliers, including extra water, wing room, and fresh air for egg-laying hens, and mandatory stunning of pigs and cattle prior to slaughter. Surprise inspections by Burger King auditors will help to ensure that suppliers treat animals humanely right up to the end. McDonald's established similar guidelines a year earlier, following a PETA campaign that included distribution of "Unhappy Meals" with wounded, bloody farm-animal toys.

Meanwhile, real violence has been at the forefront of recent animal-rights campaigns in Great Britain. During the past two years, activists have conducted a crusade against Huntingdon Life Sciences, a laboratory that tests drugs and other products on animals. Employees' cars were firebombed; then the ante was upped in February when masked attackers surprised the company's managing director, Brian Cass, outside his Cambridgeshire home and beat him with baseball bats. Financial institutions severed ties to the lab as a result of personal threats against bank managers, protest rallies, vandalism of ATM machines, and billboards that decried "Bankers to Animal Killers." In response, the Bank of England—the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Reserve—took the highly unusual step of opening an account for Huntingdon Life Sciences. But Huntingdon subsequently announced plans to move its corporate headquarters across the Atlantic to Maryland, hoping that the state's privacy laws would better protect the company's shareholders.

Since last January, the Little Rock-based investment firm Stephens Group Inc., Huntingdon's largest shareholder, has been the target of activists, and Huntingdon's New Jersey lab has been the scene of protests, vandalism, and, in April, a nighttime raid that "liberated" 14 beagles.

While such violence made headlines, legal efforts to secure the humane treatment of animals quietly gained ground in Washington. Last year, the Department of Agriculture began procedures to extend the 1970 Animal Welfare Act to cover more than 20 million laboratory rats, mice, and birds—about 95 percent of all research animals. The agency also began reexamining its own standards for monitoring pain and distress in lab animals. The review was initiated, according to Ron DeHaven, an adminstrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, when researchers who report to the Department of Agriculture complained that existing rules don't define animal distress adequately and that guidelines for measuring pain may be outdated. DeHaven also admits, "To say that the animal protection groups have played no role would simply not be true and would be naive. Obviously they've made this an issue on their agenda."

That agenda got a hearing on Capitol Hill last July when the Department of Agriculture received a surprise appropriation of $3 million to strengthen enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and to promote humane practices in slaughterhouses. Citing the Bible and articles in the Washington Post, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia proposed the legislation, admonishing his colleagues, "These are animals, yes, but they, too, feel pain. . . . Let us strive to be good stewards and not defile God's creatures or ourselves by tolerating unnecessary, abhorrent, and repulsive cruelty." — Christine Soares

Ruminating on a RuminantA Southeast Asian ox, long believed to be extinct, created a stir in 1994 when several horns thought to belong to the animal popped up. Scientists soon began speculating that the creature, known as the khting vor, might be alive somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. But no khting vor was ever found and now some researchers are wondering if it ever existed.

In January, Arnoult Seveau of the Zoological Society of Paris and two colleagues examined four sets of horns bought at marketplaces in Cambodia and Vietnam only to conclude that they were clever forgeries. DNA analysis showed that the skull bones themselves came from a common species of ruminant and had been cleverly pieced together with horns that had been heated, molded, and carved. Seveau had devoted half a year to searching forests and meat markets for evidence that the creature was alive but discovered only myths and legends, no proof whatsoever that a real animal had ever existed.

Robert Timm, curator of mammals at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in Lawrence, disagrees. The museum acquired horns from two animals believed to be khting vors in 1929, when a big-game hunter brought them back from Vietnam. "We've done a DNA analysis and concluded that the skull bone and horns are from the same animal, which certainly suggests that these specimens are authentic," says Timm, who has been studying the bones since 1986. "There is no evidence of tampering whatsoever."

Timm believes there may be a straightforward explanation for why no members of the species have been found. "It's probably become extinct," he says. "While there are, no doubt, a lot of fakes floating around, this animal did indeed exist." — Curtis Rist

The Cost of AIDS DrugsThe story of AIDS has become a tale of two worlds. In developed nations, expensive antiretroviral therapies have provided effective treatment for many patients. In poorer parts of the world, few can afford such medications, and the consequences have been staggering. Sub-Saharan Africa has been hardest hit by the epidemic: Three-quarters of those who have died of AIDS worldwide lived in this region; another 25.3 million are still living with the virus. So it came as a welcome relief to many when an Indian drug company named Cipla Ltd. announced in February that it would break ranks with the major pharmaceutical companies and cut prices for AIDS drugs in poor countries.

A year of drug therapy for an HIV patient costs up to $15,000 in the United States. By contrast, Cipla offered to supply the three-drug "cocktail" that can extend lives for just $350 per patient per year. Since the Cipla offer, other companies have slashed prices. That helped motivate international agencies to get more involved in bringing treatment to patients, says Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders. "The situation is still terribly bleak," says Cohen. "An annual cost of $350 may sound like a bargain, but when you look at a place like Kenya, where the GDP is about $300 a year per person, it's plain that these drugs are still out of reach for most poor people in most countries." — Curtis Rist

New Worries: TD, MalariaTwenty years after the first AIDS case was diagnosed, more than 22 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses. Meanwhile, two other mass killers—tuberculosis and malaria—have left a trail of death that has attracted much less public attention.

Tuberculosis kills 1.6 million people worldwide each year, and one new person is infected every second. TB is also quietly maintaining its foothold in the United States; in 2000, more than 16,000 people nationwide were infected and about 1,000 died.

Malaria kills between 700,000 and 2.7 million people annually, including one child every 30 seconds. Between 400 million and 900 million new cases are reported each year. More than 12,000 of those who caught the disease in 1999 were European travelers, so the threat is no longer limited to the third world. Experts say that battling the two killers will require concerted international effort—and money. World Health Organization officials estimate that the five-year cost of global TB control is $9.3 billion. The estimated annual cost of confronting malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 percent of the fatalities occur, is roughly $1 billion. But 25 percent of the malaria infections among children could be eradicated by distributing new insecticide-treated bed nets that would cost $7 apiece. — Diane Martindale

After the RainThe Texas Medical Center in Houston, one of the largest medical-research facilities in the world, is normally a beehive of highly focused, disciplined activity. But tropical storm Allison created havoc at the center on June 9. Labs flooded, 35,000 research animals drowned, and experimentation came to a screeching halt. Insurance and federal funds should help cover the hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of damage, but some researchers suffered losses that money alone cannot repair. At Baylor College of Medicine, one of two medical schools housed at the center, entire strains of genetically engineered mice were destroyed and must be painstakingly re-created. "This was devastating," says Katherina Walz, a geneticist whose entire body of work on Smith-Magenis syndrome, a disease that can cause mental retardation, was wiped out when her 150 mice died. "It was difficult for me to believe that I lost everything," she says.

Neighboring colleges and universities have offered lab space, technicians, and supplies to help the medical center get up and running again. Other research institutes have even offered to send copies of genetically engineered mice originally created at the medical center. "One of the good things that came out of this is seeing how wonderful people have been about helping us," says Jim Patrick, Baylor's vice president and dean of research. Adds Walz: "I think that in another nine months, I may be in the same position I was on that Friday." — Maia Weinstock

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