Need for vigilance on animal tests

13 December 2013

The public takes a pragmatic view of experimentation, but only if safeguards are maintained, says Paul Vallely

IT IS not good news for anyone that a report by the Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body at Imperial College, London, has found that procedures employed to supervise the welfare of animals that have been used in research experiments is "not fit for purpose".

The inquiry came after an undercover investigation by anti-vivisectionists at the college's labs, which claimed that adequate pain-control was not being used, unsupervised researchers with little experience were carrying out invasive surgery on animals, and a guillotine was used to carry out live decapitations.

The review body did not explore these accusations, and, indeed, its report praised the commitment of the staff at Imperial who were responsible for the day-to-day care of animals. But the experts did examine the general systems employed at the college, and criticised an "us-and-them" culture, which divided animal-care staff and scientists, who failed to work together efficiently. Reforms were needed, they said.

The number of animal "procedures" carried out in the UK rose by eight per cent last year, according to Home Office figures, although this number includes the birth of offspring to genetically modified mice and fish. Even when these animals reproduce naturally, each birth has to be registered as a new "procedure".

Britain has the strictest rules in the world on animal experiments. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 says that they can be performed only where there is a clear potential benefit to people, to animals, or to the environment, and when there is no means of obtaining these benefits without using animals. Any good to humans must clearly outweigh the harm to animals. Home Office inspectors visit labs about 12 times a year.

Much of the work previously done through animal experiments can now be done with individual molecules and cells in culture. Computational modelling, analyses of databases, and non-invasive brain-imaging techniques can give answers, too. But there are some crucial areas where experiments are essential.

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More than 120,000 people suffer from Parkinson's disease today in the UK. Inducing the disease in a few hundred marmosets over the past decade has dramatically improved the treatment of the disease. Parkinson's in marmosets does not progress fatally, as it does in human beings, but it offers the opportunity to study the early stages of its development, which is when mechanisms can be designed to prevent it. The criterion of proportionality thus seems amply fulfilled.

Scientists studying spinal-cord injuries and deafness, similarly, need animal experiments to study what prevents human beings from recovering from these conditions.

Despite the loud voices of campaigners, the vast majority of the British public take a pragmatic attitude to the balance between cost and benefit in these matters. This is perhaps unsurprising. Although we are a nation of pet-lovers, well over 90 per cent of the population eats meat. Just as we are happy to breed animals for food, so we are content, too, to see them bred for experiments that improve human health.

Polls consistently suggest that 60 per cent of the population is happy for any experiments to be done on animals. The proportion that accepts

animal experiments, subject to the kind of conditions now in place, is routinely more than 90 per cent. This is essentially an instrumentalist argument; but proportionality gives it a moral underpinning. Yet, if such consensus is to be maintained, it is vital that no unnecessary suffering is inflicted. Scientists at places like Imperial College cannot let their standards slip.

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