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The ethical cost of the Covid-19 vaccine

The search for a Covid-19 vaccine highlights a massive dilemma for many ethical investors – the fact that any vaccine will be tested on animals and such testing will violate the rights of those animals as sentient beings.

john HeadshotsTRY sq John Berry 4 minute read

Let’s first get one thing clear: should a safe and effective corona virus vaccine be developed, I will take it even if tested on animals, and I’ll encourage others to do the same. 

But as an ethical investor I don’t invest in companies that test on animals, nor does CareSaver, the ethical KiwiSaver I run. 

Animal rights are different from human rights, but they are rights all the same. Legally we recognise these as minimum welfare standards under the Animal Welfare Act.

Humane treatment is subjective, and many people believe this requires higher standards than legal minimums. 

Yet the Animal Welfare Act recognises that even these minimum welfare standards can be overridden in the case of research, testing and teaching when testing (among other things) will enhance understanding, protect human or animal health or ecosystems. 

Rejecting animal testing for cosmetics is easy to understand. The benefits are frivolous and cannot outweigh the suffering such testing causes for animals. Covid-19 is at the other extreme. The calculation sets the rights and lives of laboratory animals against the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, and particularly the old and vulnerable in communities globally.

Some may charge me with hypocrisy for taking a vaccine but not supporting animal testing. But when ethical challenges meet the real-world things are rarely clear cut. CareSaver invests for good returns and the world we want, not good returns and the world we have.

This is the same as CareSaver’s policy of not investing in companies that extract fossil fuels, even though I know the extraction and use of fossil fuels remains fundamental to building our civilisation and providing our current standard of living. 

Some animal testing is plainly outdated, but still tolerated.  One of the worst examples is the ‘forced swim test’, inflicted on mice to test the effectiveness of anti-depressant drugs.  The premise is that if you put mice in a container of water from which they have no chance of escaping, the more depressed mice will give up swimming sooner and those that have been given human anti-depressants will hopefully swim for longer.  

Companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Roche, Pfizer, and Bayer are committed to banning this test which is widely regarded as flawed. Here in New Zealand a ban was considered by the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee which issued its report in March. 

Expert evidence before the committee confirmed the test was “not a great test in terms of efficacy, and it has an ethical cost… [and] … inappropriate conclusions have been drawn from the test.” Other forms of testing of anti-depressants are available yet the test remains legal in New Zealand. 

Meanwhile, many in the healthcare sector are deploying innovative technologies as an alternative to animal testing.  Some use human cells and human tissue in tests. Others use sophisticated 3D computer models of human organs or other software testing. 

Companies developing these technologies are leading us to a world where people no longer need to make the choice between the ethical treatment of animals and their safety and wellbeing. The mice, hamsters, ferrets, and non-human primates that sit in labs around the world will benefit.

We also know such an approach does not cost in terms of returns. If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown anything it is that KiwiSaver funds with an ethical focus have done very well through the market turmoil and can outperform those funds that focus on investment returns alone.

We do not think this is a surprise. Companies with an environmental, social and governance focus are more resilient as financial investments because they look after their people, their customers, and communities, building trust, loyalty, and ultimately productivity and profitability.

So, we can invest taking social and environmental factors, including animal exploitation, into account and still get good returns.  Right now, that is important because in our Covid-19 world everything has changed – how we approach ethical concerns in our KiwiSaver should be one of those changes.  It’s time.  

John Berry is Chief Executive of the CareSaver KiwiSaver Plan (managed by Pathfinder Asset Management). His views in this article are general only and do not constitute recommendations for any particular person to acquire, hold or dispose any fund or financial product.  This article was first published on stuff.co.nz on 11 July 2020.

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