Rabbits infected with viruses, monitored for effects, and then killed

Suen, WW, Uddin, MJ, Wang, W, Brown, V, Adney, DR, Broad, N, Prow, NA, Bowen, RA, Hall, RA & Bielefeldt-Ohmann, H 2015. ‘Experimental West Nile Virus Infection in Rabbits: An Alternative Model for Studying Induction of Disease and Virus Control’, Pathogens, 4: 529-558.

Associated Institution(s): The University of Queensland, Colorado State University

The Experiment

This experiment used 71 rabbits in an attempt to create a small animal ‘model’ of human and equine West Nile virus infection, following the failure of mouse and hamster ‘models’.

The 71 rabbits were made up of 57 New Zealand White rabbits sourced from Nanowie Small Animal Production Unit (Belbrae, Victoria) and used at the University of Queensland, and 14 North American cottontail rabbits trapped in peri-urban areas of Fort Collins, CO, USA and used by Colorado State University.

63 of the rabbits were infected with virulent West Nile Virus or Murray Valley encephalitis virus strains. 8 of the rabbits were sham inoculated with cell culture media.

Infected rabbits were monitored daily for signs of illness and neurological deficit (such as seizures and muscle twitching). Each day, the 57 New Zealand white rabbits had their temperature taken rectally, while the 14 North American cottontail rabbits had a temperature transponder implanted subcutaneously to measure their body temperature daily. The New Zealand White rabbits also underwent a ‘hopping’ test every day to observe for ‘significant loss of coordination of hind and forelimbs’.

For seven days following inoculation, blood was collected from the ear vein of the rabbits.

All 71 of the rabbits were killed by an overdose through pentobarbitone injection and terminal cardiac bleed. A post-mortem was performed after death and olfactory bulbs, brain, spinal cord, eyes and sciatic nerves, spleen, tracheobronchial lymph nodes, adrenals, kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, and thymus tissues were collected.

Relevance to Humans

There are major anatomical, genetic, dietetic, environmental, toxic, and immune differences between animals – including rabbits – and humans(1), making them inappropriate for use in studying human disease. Many studies and systematic reviews show that there is discordance between animal and human studies, and that animal ‘models’ fail to mimic clinical disease adequately.(2)(3)

In fact, the publication itself notes that “Experimental infection with virulent WNV [West Nile virus] strains in the mouse and hamster models frequently results in severe neural infection and moderate to high mortality, both of which are not representative features of most human and equine infections.” Despite this, the researchers state that the “cost and logistics” of species-specific direct models “are greatly limiting”, and therefore pursued this rabbit ‘model’ despite the significant differences between rabbits and humans and horses, which means any data obtained from rabbit-based studies such as this would be highly questionable.

Given this, one must seriously question why the researchers engaged in this study did not utilise a battery of advanced human biology-based methods of research, in order for results to be directly relevant to human health outcomes.

“Rabbits are widely used for experimentation and testing mainly due to practical, rather than scientific, considerations. They are small and usually docile, easily restrained, cheap to maintain, and breed prodigiously.”

– American Anti-Vivisection Society


The experiment was funded through an Australian Research Council Linkage Project grant (LP120100686; RAH, HBO), the William Peter Richards Trust Bequest for Veterinary Pathology Research (#607786; WWS), an Australian Postgraduate Award (WWS), a University of Queensland Graduate School International Travel Award (WWS), and a University of Queensland Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (MJU).

What You Can Do

Please use the form below to tell the University of Queensland how disappointed you are with their use of animals in this experiment. You can use the text provided or compose your own (remember personalised messages carry more weight).

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  • (1) Pound P, Ebrahim S, Sandercock P, Bracken MB, Roberts I; on behalf of the Reviewing Animal Trials Systematically Group. 2004. ‘Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans?’, BMJ, 328, 514-7.
  • (2) Perel P, Roberts I, Sena E, Wheble P, Briscoe C, Sandercock P, et al. 2007. ‘Comparison of treatment effects between animal experiments and clinical trials: systemic review’, BMJ, 334:197.
  • (3) Van der Worp H, Howells DV, Sena ES, Porritt MJ, Rewell S, O”Collins V, et al. 2010. ‘Can animal models of disease reliably inform human studies?’, PLoS Med.

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