As European governments begin implementing EU rules on the use of animals in research, new figures reveal that the UK – a leading player in medical science – used more lab animals last year than at any time in the past three decades.
Some 3.8 million procedures were carried out on animals including dogs, cats, mice and monkeys last year, according to press reports.
The numbers are less important than the trend. The total figure is the highest since 1981.
[Here’s one for Europhiles: If you want a sense of how long ago that was, 1981 was the year when Roy Jenkins handed over the Presidency of the European Commission to Gaston Thorn; Greece joined the European Communities; and Bucks Fizz won the Eurovision Song Contest for the UK!]
The report was published by the UK Home Office and was met with some disappointment among animal welfare proponents. This comes after years of political commitments to reduce the number of animals used in research, refine experiments which rely on animals and, ultimately, replace animal models with viable alternatives (the 3Rs).
In light of the latest numbers from the UK, it might be tempting to claim that the ‘3Rs’ commitment is no more than a fig-leaf; an empty PR promise not reflected in the daily reality of research labs. Or maybe there are simply more research projects than before?
Digging into the data
On closer inspection of that 3.8 million headline figure, it emerges that some animals were operated on more than once so we are talking about 3.8 million procedures rather than 3.8 million animals. Large numbers nonetheless but details are important.
There’s also a matter of definition. The genetic modification of animals – which is done so that an animal carries certain genes or has particular symptoms that are to be studied – is classed as a ‘procedure’. The same is true of taking a blood sample.
In fact, the number of procedures classed as ‘significant’ was just 5% of the total.
Given the particular sensitivities about the use of primates, it’s also worth asking what animals were involved.
71% of the animals used in the UK in 2011 were mice; 15% were fish; 7% were rats and 4% were birds. 235 procedures were carried out on cats, although all of that work was aimed at improving nutrition and health in cats.
Meanwhile, there was a dramatic decrease – by 75% – in the number of new world monkeys used in research.
For all of that, the headlines generated by the report, coming as they do at a time when governments are converting the new EU directive into national law, should add extra impetus to the drive towards applying the 3Rs.
One thoughtful response to the figures came from a group of scientists who took the opportunity to suggest that European funds should be tapped to fund investment in non-animal research. In fact a lot of research of this type has been funded without much genuine progress. So rather than focusing researchers on non animal research methods, wouldn’t it be better to invest in the development of more effective research tools that would bring clear 3R benefits?
Perhaps the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation funding programme has the firepower and forward-looking mandate needed to support large projects of this kind.
So while the total number of procedures on lab animals in the UK last year was up, there might be reason to hope that the momentum generated by the report will encourage timely transposition and implementation of the EU directive – and maybe even inspire policymakers to focus on and invest further in innovative research tools which could bring us faster to non animal alternatives.