Anatomy of an Animal Rights Lie: The Plavix Case

A reader recently posted a copy of an article from the Seattle Post Intelligencer published in April 2000 that illustrates how animal rights activists cleverly omit certain facts to make their extremely weak case against animal experimentation appear far stronger than it is.

The article in question, “Human Lives Not Saved by Lab Animals,” was written by Murry Cohen of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. As a prime example of how useless animal research is, Cohen told readers about side effects from an FDA-approved drug, Plavix. Here’s Cohen’s paragraph on the drug,

While the praises of animal experimentation were being sung in a five-part series in your paper the week of 16 April, yet another animal-testing failure was being reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. According to a study released on 20 April, a widely used anti-clotting medication called Plavix has been found to cause a potentially deadly blood condition called TTP (thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura). Plavix, which is being taken by more than 3 million patients, passed all required animal tests and was deemed safe for humans. Now it’s causing bleeding, anemia, and kidney failure in some users.

Sounds frightening, but there’s a lot of information that Cohen left out.

Plavix was developed, as Cohen notes, to act as a blood clotting agent. More importantly, Plavix was developed and marketed as a replacement for the blood clotting drug ticlopidine. Guess what the major side effect of ticlopidine is? That’s right, the blood clotting agent causes TTP episodes in as many as 1 in 1,600 people who take the drug. TTP typically appear within the first two weeks of use of the drug, and requires close monitoring of patients taking the drug.

Plavix was hailed because in human clinical testing, not one case of TTP occurred among the 20,000+ people who took the drug as part of Phase 3 trials. When it was made available in the real world, however, a small number of cases of TTP were discovered to occur in people taking Plavix. But the news is still overwhelmingly positive.

As Cohen mentioned, at the time of the New England Journal of Medicine article, about 3 million people had taken the anti-clotting agent. How many known cases of TTP were there? A grand total of 11. Even assuming that researchers were only aware of 10 percent of the total TTP incidents, that means that Plavix reduced TTP-related adverse events 17-fold.

It is hardly surprising, by the way, that neither animal nor human studies found such a rare side effect. Even inflating the 11 known cases 10-fold, means that only about 1 in 27,000 people who take the drug will experience TTP. In total only about 20,000 patients took the drug during its human clinical trials. To catch such rare side effects would require increasing the numbers of animals and human beings used as test subjects, and at some point the costs of doing so begin to outweigh the benefits.

Still, only in the mind of an animal rights activist do animal and human research that results in an overwhelming reduction of potentially life threatening drug side effects count as proof that animal experimentation doesn’t work.

In fact the case with Plavix demonstrates just the opposite. Researchers had a drug they were using that had known side effects. Through a combination of animal research and human clinical trials, an alternative compound that causes far fewer side effects was brought to market. In this case, human lives were saved thanks to animal research.


Human Lives Not Saved by Lab Animals. Murry J. Cohen, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 28, 2000.

PCRM vs. Noah Wyle: Will the Real Physician Please Stand Up?

In a bit of humorous hypocrisy, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is upset about a new “Got Milk” ad featuring Noah Wyle — the actor who plays Dr. John Carter on TV’s “ER.” The ad shows Wyle with a milk mustache and the tag line, “Noah Wyle, M.D. (Milk Drinker)” and suggests readers should drink milk under “doctor’s orders.”

The ad prompted PCRM to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission that the ad is misleading. “Like many of the ads in the milk-mustache ad campaign,” PCRM president Neal D. Barnard said in a press release, “the Wyle ad violates federal law by disseminating deceptive information. It implies that milk-drinking an stop osteoporosis among men, a claim not proven in medical studies. At the same time, it promotes regular, full-fat milk without warning that the product contributes to heart disease and cancer. The Wyle ad is particularly egregious as it misleads people into thinking a real doctor is prescribing milk.”

Okay, maybe Barnard and his PCRM folks don’t realize that just because Noah Wyle plays a doctor on “ER” doesn’t mean he really is a doctor, I think most Americans are able to make that distinction. On the other hand it’s a bit amusing for Barnard to complain that the ad passes Wyle off as a doctor, because despite PCRM’s name, it actually consists of very few physicians — in fact the last time I checked only about 10 percent of PCRM’s members were in fact physicians. In addition the leading physician’s group in the United States, the American Medical Association, has in the past censured PCRM for spreading unfounded health claims (the claims that milk contributes to cancer and heart disease, for example, are very misleading).

This seems a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black.


Physicians lodge complaint over misleading ad starring “ER” actor Noah Wyle. Press release, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, October 24, 2000.

PCRM Sues USDA Over Dietary Guidelines

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture claiming that USDA
dietary recommendations ignore the special health needs of minorities.
The USDA is currently revising its recommendations, which are used by
federally funded welfare and school lunch programs.

PCRM alleges that the committee
revising the USDA guidelines is unduly influenced by the agriculture industry,
although some of the ties are a bit tenuous. PCRM attorney Mindy Kursban
complains, for example, that the chair of the USDA guidelines panel, Cutberto
Garza, has served as a scientific advisor to the Dannon Research Institute.
The Dannon Research Institute, in turn, receives funding from Dannon,
the yogurt maker.

The real problem PCRM has
with the board can be see in the reply from a USDA spokesperson about
the lawsuit. The spokesperson told Reuters:

The advisory committee appointments are solicited through a
Federal Register notice and are made to reflect a balance of technical
expertise in medicine, nutrition and epidemiology.

Of course any impartial appointment
regimen that requires a solid scientific background automatically excludes
PCRM (which as been cited by the American Medical Association and others
for consistently ignoring and distorting sound, peer reviewed medical

PCRM keeps hitting the lactose
intolerant button as if people who are lactose intolerant cannot safely
ingest milk, but this only applies to a small percentage of extremely
lactose intolerant people. Besides, the USDA already has the lactose intolerance
problem covered — federally subsidized school lunch programs already
provide for giving lactose-free milk to those children whose systems can’t
tolerate milk.


sued for too much dairy in diet guidelines
, Reuters, December 16,

PCRM Claims Food Pyramid Is Racially Intolerant

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is asking the federal government to remove the dairy
requirement from the food pyramid because large numbers of minorities
are lactose intolerant. PCRM is getting support for its efforts from Rev.
Jesse Jackson, former surgeon general Jocelyn Elders, and the Congressional
Black Caucus Health Braintrust.

The food pyramid recommends
two to three daily servings of dairy products. The PCRM recommendations
claims are a bit bizarre. First, although minorities are disproportionately
lactose intolerant, there are plenty of white folks that suffer from lactose
intolerance as well. I personally know about half a dozen people who are
not minorities and severely lactose intolerant – the kid next door vomits
rather violently if he eats cheese. One of my family members cannot drink
milk without getting sick and as a child I had similar, though milder,
problems with dairy products (even today although I can tolerate it, I
cannot stand milk). The food pyramid guidelines were never meant to be
universally applicable to everyone.

Second, most people suffering
from lactose intolerance generally have milder symptoms and often only
intermittently; only a small percentage suffer from the severe symptoms
PCRM is complaining about. But this doesn’t seem to phase PCRM’s |Neal
Barnard| who told the Sacramento Bee, “Milk shouldn’t be required.
It should be optional. It has health risks and takes a particular toll
on certain people.”

But that is also true of almost
any food. I cannot drink orange juice without experiencing stomach discomfort.
A friend of mine has to avoid sulfates or risk potentially fatal consequences.
Other people can’t eat peanuts. The list goes on and on. If the goal is
a food pyramid that takes into account any food that “takes a particular
toll on certain people” it is going to have to be as big as the real
pyramids in Egypt.

Besides as many dieticians
point out, PCRM’s recommendations aren’t likely to be all that more appealing
to people than dairy. Certainly people can get their recommended daily
allowance of calcium from broccoli or beans or even sardines, but as UC
Davis Medical Center dietitian Craig Petersen puts it, “very few
people will consume enough vegetables to get the calcium they need.”


Calling food pyramid biased, group fights dairy requirement. Stephanie McKinnon McDade, Sacramento Bee, March 17, 1999.

National Dairy Council Rips Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

In response to Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s claims that milk consumption doesn’t
help prevent osteoporosis, the National Dairy Council issued a press release
pointing out PCRM’s long running difficulties in giving accurate information.

As the NDC points out, “the
claim the group is making does not represent the total body of available
science. It is an erroneous conclusion based on a single study limited
to a narrowly defined population. The study, by its authors’ design, was
not constructed to show cause and effect as this group would want you
to believe. Rather, it was constructed as an epidemiological study intended
to generate observations and hypotheses that may lead to further study.”

PCRM misrepresented a study?
No, you don’t say.

Usual Suspects Attack Americans for Medical Progress over Xenotransplantation

As animal rights activists
and extremist environmental groups gear up to seek an outright ban on
the transplantation of organs from non-human animals to humans, Americans for Medical Progress‘s Jacquie Calnan wrote an excellent, widely published
op-ed on the importance of pursuing research on xenotransplantation and
similar technologies. She and AMP were subsequently attacked in a release
by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace and

Calnan’s op-ed, “Payton’s
hope” (available at highlighted the problems of former Chicago Bear running back Walter
Payton, who recently announced he has a rare liver disease and may die
within two years if he does not receive a transplant.

As Calnan noted in her op-ed,
although there are 12,000 people on the waiting list for livers, only
about 4,000 such transplants are performed each year. In 1997 more than
1,000 people died while waiting for a matching liver. Calnan’s editorial
did an excellent job of highlighting animal rights hypocrisy, which is
why I suspect it was so quickly attacked. She repeated PETA celebrity
spokesman Bill Maher‘s recent quote to US Magazine that: “To those
people who say, ‘My father is alive because of animal experimentation,’
I say ‘Yeah, well, good for you. This dog died so your father could live.’
Sorry, but I am just not behind that kind of trade off.” Someone
should send Maher a thank you note for so succinctly summing up the animal
rights philosophy.

Calnan mentioned the newly
developed device I mentioned a couple weeks ago that uses pig cells to
help keep some people alive while waiting transplants. The fact is this
technology is here today and it is already saving lives, so the animal
rights and extreme environmental activists have to fall back on two claims
to discredit the technology.

The first is that the risk
of passing diseases from non-humans to humans is too high. Animal rights
activists have released claim after claim trying to make this point, but
most of the more serious ones have later turned out to be baseless. On
the other hand, like any other thing human beings do, there is always
some risk associated with it – the risk of some new deadly disease crossing
from non-humans to humans will never be zero.

But if our society was that
risk-averse no pharmaceutical drugs or medical technology would ever be
approved since the risk of a calamity from any new technology is never
zero. If this sort of principle actually guided medical technology, certainly
technologies that we take for granted, such as vaccination, would never
have been allowed since the potential risks were only poorly known at best.

The second claim is that there
are more than enough organ donors to go around. At the end of her article,
Calnan ask for more people to become organ donors, which is a reasonable
position, but the critics of xenotransplantation seem to assume that those
organ donors are here today. A recent press release from the Boston-based
Campaign for Responsible Transplantation claimed, for example, that Xenotransplantation
advocates “use statistics and emotion to make their case … some 3,000
transplant patients die each year on in the U.S. … [but a ] US General
Accounting Office report … reveals a potential organ donor pool of 150,000
people. This is in stark contrast to previous estimates of 5,000 to 29,000
people annually … if these organs are secured, it would solve the national
organ shortage, and completely eliminate the need for animal organ transplants.”

As is the typical modus operandi with
these groups, however, this last claim is a distortion. The GAO report
was written to explore different methods of evaluating the performance
of Organ Procurement Organizations, who are assigned the task of procuring
organs and getting them into the organ sharing network. In order to do
that sort of evaluation, the GAO wanted a baseline of the upper bound of
eligible organ donors, which it estimated at 147,000 in 1994 using a technique
to estimate actual deaths and then adjust the figures to determine how
many of those deaths would have had harvestable organs.

The interesting thing is that
in the very next paragraph after giving this estimate, the GAO notes the
limits of counting potential organs this way, “we found that both
the death and adjusted-death measures [which are the source of the 147,000
figure] have drawbacks that limit their usefulness, however, including
lack of timely data and inability to identify those deaths suitable for
use in organ donation.”

First, this explicitly concedes
that the 147,000 figure was obtained using a method that the GAO admits
has an “inability to identify those deaths suitable for use in organ
donation,” which is the crux of the problem with human organ donation
itself. If it was too expensive and time consuming for the GAO to go back
four years and decide how many people were eligible organ donors,
imagine the difficulty in trying to harvest those organs on the spot.

It is one thing to look back
several years later and say there were say 40,000 automobile deaths and
of those 6,000 were potential organ donors. It is another thing to be
in place to actually obtain those organs (a severe problem in organ donation
is that even among those who have signed organ donor cards and are good candidates
to donate organs, often the organs are no longer usable by the time doctors
are aware of the potential donor or get permission from family members
to proceed. This is a situation that is unlikely to change significantly
in the near future).

In addition, the CRT release
failed to note that the number organ donors has increased over the last
few years – but the number of people eligible for organ donation has increased
even faster. I suppose if PETA had its way, this wouldn’t be a problem
since there would be no animal research and fewer people would be transplant
candidates since the medical knowledge to save their lives simply wouldn’t
exist, but barring this it seems clear that future advances in medical
science are going to continue to drive the demand for organ donation at
a much faster rate than the increase in donated organs.

If anything the GAO report
on the failures of Organ Procurement Organizations to obtain more organs
is evidence of just how difficult it is going to be to increase the level
of organ donation, and further emphasizes why xenotransplantation and
similar technologies will likely play a key role in the 21st century – provided animal rights activists aren’t given the chance to
halt this important advance.