How COVID-19 has impacted research with animals

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on many aspects of research at the Crick. Jan-Bas Prins, Director of our Biological Research Facility, explains why 2020 was a tough year for animal research but also a very important one.

In the Crick’s Biological Research Facility (BRF), we support all animal research at the institute, essential to many of our world-class science programmes. Last year we faced significant challenges as lockdowns threatened ongoing research projects, but we also embraced opportunities to contribute to the understanding and management of SARS-CoV-2.

Scientists in the Crick's Biological Research Facility.

The Crick is a signatory of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research.

Learn more about our biological research facility and the animals we work with

The Crick is committed to openness and transparency around all of our work involving animals. Every year we publish the number of procedures carried out, what these were, and why they were needed. And our 2020 figures show a notable drop compared to the year before. 

Science in lockdown

In March 2020, as the UK entered its first lockdown, research at the Crick ground to a halt. Only essential staff could enter the building and we had to prioritise coronavirus research and testing. This meant that many planned studies involving animals couldn’t go ahead, including research into diseases like cancer and tuberculosis, and investigations into the very earliest stages of development and growth.  

While most of our researchers continued their work from home, turning their attention to writing papers and analysing data, my team faced the challenge of protecting both animal welfare and safeguarding the future of multiple long-term research projects involving animals. Our dedicated animal technicians and support staff adopted a shift pattern of working to minimise contact between people, but also to ensure continuing animal care. When scaling down our breeding colonies, we were able to secure genetic lines in frozen samples ready for researchers to return. During this time, we also took the opportunity to review our practices and make improvements as part of our commitment to the 3R’s:

  • Replace: Accelerating the development and use of models and tools, based on the latest science and technologies, to address important scientific questions without the use of animals
  • Reduce: Appropriately designed and analysed animal experiments that are robust and reproducible, and truly add to the knowledge base
  • Refine: Advancing animal welfare by exploiting the latest in vivo technologies and by improving understanding of the impact of welfare on scientific outcomes

COVID-19 research

The pandemic has also brought fresh research challenges to the Crick. Many of our researchers, including those specialising in virology and immunology, have refocussed their efforts on the novel coronavirus, working to answer questions like how does it affect the immune system and what effect does it have on tissues such as lung and gut? My team helped with obtaining transgenic mouse models for coronavirus studies, advised on the appropriate scaling of breeding programmes and use of animals, and secured the operations of the major part of our facilities.

For example, as we continue to identify and track new coronavirus variants, researchers at the Crick are working to understand what threat they pose. Is a particular new variant more likely to cause severe disease, or will vaccines be less effective against it? 

Working with animals will help uncover invaluable insight into these variants. We are helping to create a bespoke and biologically secure facility in which our researchers can study the latest variants of interest in animals, including mice and hamsters, and report their findings to inform national and international public health bodies.

Future animal research

As the Crick returns to business as usual and research activity is increasing, the number of procedures involving animals is expected to increase as well. It remains to be seen what that will mean for the year ahead. The pandemic has shone a light on the continuing value of animal research, including the role it has played in supporting the development of safe and effective vaccines. And it has also opened up new ways of working, including greater emphasis on bioinformatics and improved data sharing globally. 

Although advances in alternative methods have reduced the need to use animals for some experiments, our bodies are complex and many systems have yet to be recreated artificially. This means scientists still need to use animals to study a wide range of conditions including infectious diseases, cancer and developmental problems, while putting great efforts into developing and implementing non-animal methods at the same time. 

As research at the Crick continues to ramp back up, we’re confident we can continue to support the best medical studies involving animals, in the most ethical and responsible way.

Sign up for our newsletters

Join our mailing lists to receive updates about our latest research and to hear about our free public events and exhibitions.  If you would like to find out more about how we manage your personal information please see our privacy policy.