BioRescue Develops Ethical Risk Assessment for Northern White Rhino Rescue Program

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The BioRescue consortium is developing and applying new technological approaches as a last resort to save critically endangered species such as the northern white rhino. Advanced Assisted Reproduction Technologies (aART) are pushing the boundaries of what can be done to create new offspring. Therefore, new ethical questions regarding the application of these tools arise and need to be resolved, and relevant animal welfare issues need to be addressed. In order to ensure that the assessment of ethical risk corresponds to the technological breakthrough with aART, the BioRescue consortium has developed and applies the “ETHAS” tool, an ethical self-assessment tool.

Sment tool explicitly designed to aid in oocyte collections, in vitro fertilizations, embryo transfers and other procedures of the BioRescue consortium. ETHAS was developed under the leadership of the University of Padua and is described in detail in a new article published in the scientific journal “Animals“.

From the start of the conceptualization of the BMBF sponsored BioRescue program, it was evident that if successful, newly developed technologies for assisted reproduction would require the application of a strong ethical and animal welfare framework for the species conservation. “If we have new things to do, it is our job to also look at what we need to do and how we can apply them in a way that genuinely respects animal welfare, risk considerations, safety. of the people involved and the quality of the procedures ”, explains Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, director of BioRescue, of the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW). These ethical considerations have been a central pillar of the program’s work. Professor Barbara de Mori and her team at the Ethics Laboratory for Veterinary Medicine, Conservation and Animal Welfare at the University of Padua in Italy have continuously monitored and evaluated every procedure carried out by the BioRescue team since the start of the scientific rescue program in 2019. “We quickly realized that for assisted reproductive technologies as they are developed and applied in the BioRescue program, no ethics review tool existed,” explains de Mori “As the reproductive specialists had to design new intervention approaches, we were able to develop and apply in parallel a new robust and robust ethical risk assessment framework.” ETHAS is the result, aiming to raise standards ethics of the application of aART in general and to set the bar as high as possible for BioRescue procedures.

ETHAS is an ethical self-assessment tool explicitly designed to assess ART in conservation breeding programs. It consists of two checklists, the “ethics scorecard” and the “ethical risk assessment”. ETHAS checklists merge risk analysis – based on a combination of traditional risk assessment, animal welfare aspects and assessment of specific ethical risks – with ethical analysis to assess the ethical acceptability of procedures evaluated. “ETHAS has undergone several applications in different conditions (zoos and semi-captive management) which have allowed the revision, improvement and refinement of the tool in an iterative procedure via the work shared between ethicists and reproduction experts”, explains de Mori the process of developing the tool, which also involved specialists from the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Avantea Laboratory in Italy. “We are committed to developing high ethical standards and the welfare of endangered species, while combating the extinction and recovery of endangered species,” says Dr Patrick Omondi of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The framework not only ensures that procedures are carried out in accordance with the highest standards of animal welfare and safety, but is also a crucial tool in determining the value and risks of future procedures based on those already established. “For example, all the risks that were taken to create a northern white rhino embryo now accumulate in this embryo”, explains Pierfrancesco Biasetti, member of the University Ethics Laboratory of Padua and Leibniz-IZW. “This means that they have an exceptionally high conservation value and that decisions to transfer them to create new offspring must reflect this value.”

Having a robust risk assessment tool enables the consortium to make evidence-based and well-reasoned decisions. “We are well aware that pushing conservation technologies to the limit can raise questions with more than one valid answer,” summarize Hildebrandt and de Mori. “Depending on personal perspectives, there may be different views on what is an acceptable risk for a procedure and what is an ethically flawless approach to species conservation. With ETHAS, we respect these challenges, consider every ethical and risk aspect of our procedures and ultimately work towards our goal of preventing the extinction of the northern white rhino. ”

The accompanying ethical scientific work is supported by Merck and also focuses on issues of stakeholders and the general public. “The application of these new technologies inevitably raises new questions also in the public and in the discourses of stakeholders on safeguarding biodiversity,” says Steven Seet, science communicator at Leibniz-IZW. “These include questions like ‘is it worth spending public money to save a single wildlife species? Or “if we have technologies and methods to save species on the brink of extinction, do we still have to care about nature?” “

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