Maartje Bakker of De Volkskrant gained permission from the Biomedical Primate Research Center (BPRC) in Rijswijk, The Netherlands, to follow a study of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine as it was tested in monkeys. “Never before have outsiders seen at such close quarters how such an experiment is conducted” at the BPRC, Bakker wrote. “It is something that makes the researchers at the BPRC nervous. They know that they receive a lot of criticism from society.” But she added, “They also feel that the time when monkey research is surrounded by secrecy should be over.” Bakker recounted the fate of two rhesus monkeys―mother Chips and daughter Dip―as they were injected with the candidate vaccine, exposed to the coronavirus and ultimately euthanized by lethal injection to allow researchers to examine their lungs and other tissues. It is a somber story, told through interviews with the caregivers, researchers and ethicists involved as well as critics who fiercely oppose animal testing. The judges praised Bakker’s even-handed approach to a controversial topic. “Monkey testing is such a sad business that many of us would prefer not to hear the details, even when those monkeys have been sacrificed on the altar of COVID-19 vaccines,” said judge Amy Maxmen, senior reporter at Nature. “Maartje Bakker has written a story that seems to come as close to the truth as one can hope, which pays respect to the monkeys and their caretakers, without glorifying the job or shying away from its ethical dilemmas.” Sarah Zielinski, managing editor of Science News for Students, said Bakker “gained incredible access to obtain this moving story about animals sacrificed in the quest for COVID-19 vaccines. I was really impressed by how she was able to tell a story that was at once neutral about the controversial subject of animal testing and yet absolutely heartbreaking to read.” Bakker said she sees the award “as a recognition for thorough research, for long conversations, for being present at important moments, in general, for slow journalism. I am very grateful to be working for a newspaper that supports projects like this, that need a lot of time and energy, and to have encountered researchers that were brave enough to give us access to their world."
De Volkskrant (The Netherlands) July 10, 2021