22 Aug Covance spars with animal rights activists
Madison, Wis. – The building of a state-of-the-art medical research facility that could help pharmaceutical and biotech companies test the safety of new drug candidates is being challenged by a vocal contingent of animal rights activists.
Slated for construction in Chandler, Ariz., the proposed facility represents the next significant capital investment for drug development giant Covance Inc., following the recent expansion of its facilities in Madison.
Amid its preparations for the gambit of committee meetings and public hearings designed to dissect the merits of the plan, Covance has contended with protest groups stirring debate around issues such as animal welfare, possible environmental biohazards, and traffic congestion.
Covance, one of the world’s largest drug development service companies, estimates that it has helped develop one-third of all pharmaceuticals on the market today. The Chandler facility would significantly enhance that established presence in the multi-billion dollar drug research market.
The project exists in an early and uncertain phase. As the public relations contest escalates to sway concerned residents, conflicting indicators of public opinion on the facility have done little to predict how Chandler’s elected officials will respond to the plan once it is put to a vote.
Covance already has purchased an $8 million site and is presently seeking zoning approval to begin construction. The site is strategically located, providing expanded access to the western U.S. pharmaceutical and biotech corridor, and close proximity to a strong life-sciences talent pool from the University of Arizona and Arizona State University.
“Right now we’re committed to this location,” Wendel Barr, senior vice president for Covance, told the Chandler Connection last month. “Chander is our first choice. This is where we want to be.”
The move has provoked a renewed flurry of protest campaigns led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), with direct support from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and The Animal Defense League of Arizona.
The ensuing debate has raised questions about the efficacy of federal drug approval regulations, standards for measuring pharmaceuticals in groundwater, and the integrity of the activist organizations themselves. But what seems clear is that the facility could bring a lot of money into the community.
In addition to developing new and potentially life-saving medicines, the first phase of the facility would offer approximately 400 jobs – most of which would be life-science jobs, including study managers, directors, lab technicians, and pathologists.
According to impact estimates from the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the total direct personal income of these jobs would be $10.6 million in 2006. By 2010, an upgraded facility would support 700 jobs and would have injected an accumulated total of approximately $7.6 million in direct revenue into the region.
In an August letter to Mayor Boyd Dunn, city manager Mark Pentz and other signatories urged city representatives to embrace the Covance plan. “It is the [Chandler Chamber of Commerce]’s belief that Covance will have a positive impact on our local economy in the way of providing high-level jobs as well as continue to build upon Chandler’s foundation to attract other responsible, credible, and respected bio-engineering firms to our community,” he wrote.
A grassroots outcry?
Activists alleging “grotesque animal cruelty” and a “history of deadly toxic exposures” by Covance have made several attempts to persuade citizens to withdraw their support.
PETA’s web-based campaign, CovanceCruelty.com, depicts images of caged and screaming Macaques. The site’s visceral centerpiece hinges on compiled video footage obtained between April 26, 2004 and March 11, 2005 by PETA operative Lisa Leitten, an investigator hired as a technician to infiltrate Covance’s laboratory in Vienna, Va. The footage contains unsteady, muffled scenes of technicians restraining frenetic test monkeys.
In October 2005, the Circuit Court of Fairfax County ordered PETA to stop infiltration activities for a period of five years. Then, in March 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture completed an investigation of the Vienna facility, issuing 16 citations – none of which were declared to be pervasive or endemic problems. Covance settled the matter with $8,720.
An online petition created by Michael Carbajal called “Stop the building of Covance Laboratories in Chandler” had garnered 5,496 digital signatures by the time of publication. Despite the negligible legitimacy of numerous signatures (posting requires only a name and e-mail address), some entries appear to independently and genuinely resonate PETA’s anti-Covance campaign.
In the most recent entry that included a home address, Deanne Norton of Flagstaff wrote: “Just horrible, we need to stop these monsters.”
In contrast, a Public Opinion Strategies poll commissioned by Covance suggests that 62 percent of Chandler residents favor the construction of the facility. The company release noted, “While some residents have reservations about animal testing, a total of 80 percent still support the facility.”
Alternatives to animal testing?
Testing drugs on animals in preclinical trials is a federally mandated procedure but critics claim that it is also an outdated one.
Alka Chandna, senior researcher at PETA, cited a March 2004 FDA report titled “Challenge and Opportunity on the Critical Path to New Medical Products,” which states: “A new medical compound entering Phase 1 testing, often representing the culmination of upwards of a decade of preclinical screening and evaluation, is estimated to have only an eight percent chance of reaching the market.”
“The fact that only eight percent of drugs that enter Phase I actually make it to the human market means that 92 percent of the drugs found to be safe and effective in animals were found to be either unsafe or ineffective in humans,” Chandna said.
She cited alternatives such as the “Hurel chip” under development at Cornell University. This and other non-animal testing technologies have been shown to mimic the biological functions of living organisms but are not currently available as commercial applications.
Chandna suggested that development of alternative drug testing technologies has been stunted by corporate influence and the absence of political will.
“The technologies have to be validated by the FDA, and the validation process is highly political and, for people like us, very frustrating,” she said. “Our government is dragging its feet at the behest, I would say, of pharmaceutical interests. And that comes at the cost of not only animal lives but human lives.”
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