In May, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) did something extraordinary. The agency quietly scrubbed the Wuhan Institute of Virology from its list of pre-approved labs that can receive U.S. tax dollars to conduct animal testing.
The Wuhan lab is, of course, noteworthy because an abundance of evidence suggests it’s likely the source of SARS-CoV-2.
That the Wuhan lab was receiving millions of dollars from the NIH to conduct risky research on coronaviruses helps explain why the U.S. government worked so hard to convince people that COVID-19 was of natural origin. It also explains why NIH would erase the Wuhan lab from its list of labs that can receive funding—without even issuing a press release.
Unfortunately, the NIH’s damage control isn’t just too late. It’s also far too little.
White Coat Waste Project—the organization that exposed that the NIH was funding the gain-of-function research of the Chinese lab researcher reportedly believed to be “patient zero”—recently noted that dozens of other Chinese laboratories that conduct animal testing remain eligible to receive U.S. tax dollars.
"Shipping taxpayer dollars to animal testing labs run by our foreign adversaries is a recipe for disaster,” White Coat Waste Project senior vice president Justin Goodman said in a statement. “Over 70 percent of taxpayers—Republicans and Democrats alike—oppose this reckless spending."
There’s a reason Americans overwhelmingly oppose taxpayer funding for animal testing. The practice is ethically questionable and often gruesome.
In 2021, CBS reported on a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program that funded experiments on healthy cats, including a procedure called a “head implant” that involved researchers “drilling holes” into the skulls of cats “to test for sleep patterns.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these grisly experiments caught the attention of federal lawmakers, including Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R), who says more than $1 billion of federal funds have been spent on animal testing programs and other projects in China and Russia alone.
Ms. Ernst is one of a bipartisan group of lawmakers looking to end this funding with the Accountability in Foreign Animal Research (AFAR) Act.
“The AFAR Act will guarantee not another penny will be spent subsidizing crazy and dangerous experiments, like putting cats on a treadmill or enhancing bat coronaviruses in Russia and China ever again," says Ms. Ernst.
Ms. Ernst is right, and the AFAR Act is a step in the right direction. But the problem goes beyond tax dollars.
There’s a dark, Frankenstein-like aspect to researchers who’d use such ethically compromised practices to advance humanity’s fortunes in the name of science. The lesson of Frankenstein, of course, is that we should beware of committing moral atrocities in the pursuit of science. Yet this lesson appears lost on many scientists today, or at least those who are receiving the checks.
And this gets to the deeper problem. The government isn't merely allowing these ethically questionable experiments on animals to occur; it's actively funding the research, which is problematic for two reasons that go beyond dollars and cents.
First, government has created a massive industry around animal experimentation. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, and both the recipients of the funds and those who grant them have an incentive to keep the cash flowing—regardless of the ethics or the fruit born of the research.
Second, proper oversight and accountability of these facilities is hampered by the fact that the government is funding the research. The government is supposed to hold to account those who directly harm others, but the Wuhan lab saga shows how difficult this task becomes when the government itself is the bad actor.
Neither the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which administers the Wuhan Institute of Virology and reports directly to the State Council of the People's Republic of China, nor the U.S. government has shown much interest in being transparent about what was going on at the Wuhan lab.
China has steadfastly refused to give patient data to the World Health Organization in its investigation into the origins of COVID-19, even though it's considered a standard pandemic practice.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, went to great lengths to censor Americans who openly speculated that the virus might have originated in the Wuhan lab. Government officials also somehow convinced a bunch of scientists to publicly claim the virus was of a natural origin, even though they privately believed the opposite was true.
In other words, government officials will be more inclined to cover up the truth than hold themselves accountable for any crimes they commit or harm they cause.
None of this should surprise us. In his classic work "Anatomy of the State," the economist Murray Rothbard noted that “the State is largely interested in protecting itself rather than its subjects.” Rothbard proposed testing this hypothesis with a simple question: “Which category of crimes does the State pursue and punish most intensely—those against private citizens or those against itself?”
We’ve seen the answer to this question over and again in the last three years, which is why it’s clear that it’s time for the government to get out of the business of funding animal experiments altogether.
The state’s long track record of horrifying scientific experiments—on both people and animals—shows it lacks both the conscience and incentives necessary to conduct such research ethically (assuming it can ever be ethical) and safely.
In the end, both our grandchildren and the animal kingdom will thank us for separating science and state.