RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — From his office on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Dr. Bill Dewey gestures to the window.
“We have people in that hospital every day,” he says. “We gotta get people out of the hospital. It’s why we do research.”
Dewey, the Chair of the VCU Pharmacology and Toxicology Department, says the opioid epidemic is bigger than many people realize, and the drugs are taking too many lives. There are individuals addicted, overdosing and dying.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the epidemic kills an estimated 115 people every day in the United States.
“This is not VCU, ” he describes what is happening in research labs. “This is the world.”
In his five decades of work, Dewey has seen the number of studies on animals, including primates, significantly decline.
They do exist, however, including on campus at VCU.
There are five active monkey studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at a tune of about $1.3 million last year, alone.
In research documents reviewed by 8News, the tests involve isolating the rhesus monkeys in single cages, using restraint chairs, performing surgeries to implant testing equipment, placing their partially shaven tails in scalding water to gauge pain and addicting them to opioids.
“The government needs to take a close look at how it’s spending money and the enormous amount of money that’s being wasted addicting animals to drugs,” states Justin Goodman of the White Coat Waste Project (WCW), which exposes taxpayer-funded animal experiments.
Goodman, the WCW Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy, explains the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would end nicotine addiction testing on squirrel monkeys in January after an effort started by his group.
In a statement, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA Commissioner, explained the FDA was sending the squirrel monkeys to a sanctuary and launched an investigation to “address any remaining or future issues for the entire animal program.”
“If the federal government is looking at its own projects and determining that they’re unnecessary, they should be taking a look at the experiments that they’re funding outside of government labs,” says Goodman. “Every penny that VCU and the federal government waste on these types of cruel and contrived and wasteful experiments on monkeys is one less penny that can be used on public health programs and recovery efforts for people suffering from opioid addiction right now.”
Dewey says it is not about pitting research against recovery resources, and both are needed to truly tackle the opioid epidemic.
“One’s right and the other’s wrong? Absolutely not,” Dewey maintains.
He explains VCU’s monkey testing aims to find pain relief without addiction and would fill a necessary void in the medical world, despite animal advocate claims that it is cruel and unnecessary.
“I think they have the right to their opinion,” Dewey says. “I disagree with that because I think it’s like the story of giving a man a fish is one thing. Teaching him how to fish is better.”
Will Lowrey, a 1994 VCU graduate, long-time animal advocate and soon-to-be animal rights attorney, says transparency from the school can make all the difference.
“That’s the power the people have. The people have the power of (1) information and (2) how to act with that information. And that acting may come from choosing to spend their dollars elsewhere or maybe choosing to go to school elsewhere,” Lowrey explains. “The next time that you want to go to a VCU basketball game or maybe you think about checking out their new museum, think about what goes on on Marshall Street and question how do you want to spend your dollars?”
Dewey, though, says without research like what is happening in his labs, the true cost would be to patients.
“Fifty years since the first cardiac heart transplant was done,” he points in the direction of VCU Medical Center. “Would you like one of your family to be the first person to have a heart cardiac transplant that was never done on an experimental animal? Would you want one of your family to be first?”
An 8News request to visit the opioid testing labs at VCU was denied. The school said it was an issue of safety to the animals and researchers.