Humanize From Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism

Stop ‘Outsourcing’ Unethical Science to Other Countries

Wesley J. Smith
arroba Email

Did the United States really fund “medical research,” in which beagle puppies were drugged and their heads sealed in containers infested with hungry sandflies? Yes, according to the White Coat Waste Project.

Documents the organization obtained through the Freedom of Information Act appear to show that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)—headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci—helped pay a lab in Tunisia to conduct these cruel and seemingly senseless experiments, which also purportedly involved removing the dogs’ voice boxes so researchers wouldn’t have to hear them whine in pain. Yikes!

Be it noted that White Coat opposes all animal research, so that should be kept in mind when judging the group’s provocative claim that the dogs in the experiment were “eaten alive.” Still, treating research dogs so cruelly would never be approved for government funding if it took place here.

Moreover, the watchdog group’s exposé was deemed sufficiently so credible that a bipartisan group of twenty House Members co-signed a letter to Fauci decrying the dogs’ abuse as a “reprehensible misuse of taxpayer funds.”

The beagle puppy experiment isn’t the only ethically problematic research paid for by U.S. taxpayers and conducted overseas in recent years.

Remember when Senator Rand Paul accused Fauci and the National Institutes of Health of funding “gain-of-function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology? (Gain of function experiments upgrade viruses and make them more dangerous to humans.) Fauci denied the charge, and even told Paul that he didn’t know what he was “talking about.”

Wrong.  In what was described by the liberal magazine Vanity Fair as a “major reversal,” the NIH acknowledged that mice infected with an altered virus became sicker than animals infected with the natural version. The NIH weakly excused its previous lack of candor by claiming the outcome was “an unexpected result of the research as opposed to something researchers set out to do.” Perhaps. But that does not make it okay!

There have been many other questionable overseas experiments in which Americans have participated financially or with expertise. For example, Chinese and U.S. scientists created monkeys carrying specific human genes to research the evolutionary origin of the human brain.

This potentially ethically fraught research received approval from Chinese authorities (for whatever that is worth) even though one purpose was to elevate the rhesus monkeys’ mental capacities beyond their normal cognition. And indeed, the scientists reported that their transgenic animals exhibited better short-term memories than wild monkeys.

Would this experiment have been permitted to be performed here? It’s questionable. But there seems little doubt that conducting the experiment in China made for an easier approval process.

The problem of researchers exporting experiments that can’t be done domestically has a long history Back in the 90s, the NIH funded studies in Africa with pregnant HIV+ women and their babies that would never have been allowed domestically. According to Public Citizen, those experiments needlessly exposed infants to HIV infection and may have cost the lives of babies to AIDS.

In 2009, the FDA exempted overseas experiments from following the requirements of American research established by the international protocol, the Helsinki Declaration. Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2011, the Independent, a UK newspaper, reported that Western pharmaceutical companies were using India as a “testing ground for drugs” because “of a huge population and loose regulations” that cut research costs.

Short circuiting the ethical rules by shipping research overseas should be of great concern to all who care about human decency and morality. Stanford bioethicist William Hurlbut brands this gaping loophole in the rules of scientific research as “outsourcing ethics”—the idea being that universities, Big Biotech, and Big Pharma conduct questionable experiments overseas because it is cheaper or otherwise more expedient.

I call the phenomenon “biological colonialism.”  Whatever you name it, ethically dubious experiments extract a heavy toll on their victims—be they human or animal.

The time has come to address the larger issue rather than focus on decrying an immoral experiment here and an ethically questionable scientific paper there. We need answers. How often does the United States government fund overseas research that would be deemed unethical here? How often do our scientists avoid domestic rules by simply using foreign labs? And what—if anything—can be done to stop it?

Here are a few ideas:

  • A thorough audit of U.S. funded research overseas should be conducted to gauge the necessity, cost, and ethical propriety of experiments paid for in whole or part with taxpayer money.
  • Funding procedures should prioritize supporting domestic research rather than that conducted overseas since our oversight procedures tend to be more effective.
  • Any foreign research funded by U.S. taxpayers should be required to comply with the ethical rules that apply here. In this regard, rules need to ensure that destitute populations overseas are not exploited by being persuaded to participate in dangerous or immoral experiments with the promise of stipends.
  • If overseas studies prove to be unsafe or unethical, there should be appropriate sanctions applied, such as demands for refunds, denial of future grants, and disqualification of universities, companies, or scientists from seeking support for research.
  • The FDA and similar licensing authorities should refuse to give their imprimaturs to any drug that was tested in animals or humans in ways that would be illegal in country. Perhaps too, patents can be denied to companies that market unethically-developed products.
  • Enforceable international protocols should be created that equally protect human life and human dignity in the developing world as they are in rich countries.

It is long past time for an ethical house cleaning. Overseas breaches of moral propriety by U.S.-funded researchers, domestic companies, and American scientists make us all complicit in wrongdoing. It doesn’t have to be that way. If we close the door on outsourcing ethics, maybe those poor beagles will not have suffered in vain.