Cochlear’s business as usual approach to animal-based research ignores reputational risk

At the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of Cochlear, held in Sydney, on 20 October, the company answered one question in relation to its animal-based research activities and took another question “on notice”.

The company recently came under fire for research it is undertaking in conjunction with the Bionics Institute, namely spending nearly $450,000 in testing its "bionic ear" on 16 cats.  Fairfax Media released information about a confidential "project agreement" in August however were “left to ponder the levels of discomfort and/or torment experienced by the animals and just how testing on cats tells researchers anything about the anatomy of humans”, after both organisations declined to respond to questions from The Sydney Morning Herald.

The project agreement outlines one of the two purposes of the current "project" as being to "determine the effects of an amplified acoustic environment on loss of residual hearing in cats that have a cochlear implant and receive chronic electrical stimulation".

This involves lead wires "tied with Dacron mesh to the skull through two holes" and a stimulator attached "subcutaneous on the back near the spine". Human "operators" are warned in the documentation "to maintain at least one metre distance" from the "operating device ... because of the quite strong magnetic field generated by the coils".

The article questions Cochlear's silence on its animal-based research activities, a point that was raised again at the AGM, at which the company announced a FY15net profit after tax of $145.8m (up 56%) and guidance for FY16 in the range of $165 million to $175 million.

Company’s response

In response to a question submitted by Humane Research Australia prior to the AGM, Cochlear’s Chairman, Rick Holliday-Smith, told those attending the AGM that the company does not carry out animal-based research directly:

“Cochlear is required by law to obtain animal data related to our devices. Cochlear supports the highest standards of respectful and humane care of animals and the company’s research partners conduct animal studies only where there is no alternative.

“We only engage research partners who comply with all regulations. Any proposed study is judged on scientific merit, potential beneficial impact and the likelihood of success by an approved Animal Research Ethics Committee which includes vets and all welfare and community representatives as members.

“Approved studies are conducted by specifically trained staff with the involvement of veterinarians and are performed in accordance with the approved study protocols.”

In attendance at the AGM, Humane Research Australia campaigner Paula Wallace, asked Holliday-Smith: “Why does the company, through its partnerships with other organisations, not disclose and make readily available information related to its animal-based research activities? And why does the company not invest in alternatives to animal-based methods like that of other human health companies globally such as Novo Nordisk?

He replied: “I don’t have all the answers to those questions so I’ll take some of them on notice.

“In general I’d say some of the research is published so that is in the public domain. We obviously need to interact with universities and others to get our research carried out. What your question was… whether we should go further than reacting with high quality universities that we rely on and start directing them to think more differently about what they do, and I don’t have the answer to that, so I’ll take that on notice.”

Cochlear’s annual report does not include information about the company’s animal-based research activities such as the number of animals used, the procedures enacted upon them and the results obtained. Crucially it does not include information on:

. the efficacy of testing methods

. comparison of animal-based testing methods with other methods either available or that could be developed

. the value of results achieved to the stated objectives (and broader company objectives) and

to the return on investment in animal-based research including through values broader than just financial.

At the very least, HRA, and perhaps other shareholders of Cochlear, would like to easily obtain information about the nature of, and investment in, animal-based research by the company. Only then can the company claim transparency and corporate best practice, which goes beyond compliance and allows investors and consumers to make truly informed choices about its engagement with the company.

It should also consider the reputational risks of continuing its business-as-usual approach to animal-based research and compliance, not just in this market, but also in the relationships it has with more than 100 external research partners based in 20 countries.

As we’ve seen in recent months, despite its assumption that its animal-based research activities will not be exposed to public scrutiny, once information does get out, it will be picked up by the mainstream news media.

HRA welcome Cochlear to respond to its questions and consider how it can demonstrate corporate leadership, help break the silence on animal-based research and participate in a much broader dialogue on its efficacy, benefit to its stakeholders and possible alternatives.

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