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Citizens’ initiative could endanger animal research

More than one million people have signed a petition which threatens to repeal European regulations for animal research. Dr Sherie Wright, Senior Corporate Governance and Policy Officer at the MRC, explains why animal research is so important, and why efforts to ban it in Europe could compromise both animal welfare and scientific research.   

A mouse emerges from its cardboard tube

The ‘Stop Vivisection’ European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is founded on the erroneous belief that animal research is “useless for humans and exposes us to serious risks with regard to our future well-being”. It seeks to repeal the European Directive 2010/63/EU which regulates the use of animals (vertebrates and some others) in research in EU countries.

We understand why many people are uncomfortable with animal research. No one enjoys using animals, but it is far from useless. And while progress is being made towards developing non-animal research methods, it remains the best option we have in many areas of science.

We use animals because of their similarity to humans. The biology we share with vertebrates make them incredibly useful models for learning about biological processes.

Animal research has also led to significant advances in our understanding and treatment of both human and animal disease. The list of medical interventions made possible by animal research is long, from organ transplantation and the development of antibiotics, to anaesthetics and vaccines.

For example, the development of the rheumatoid arthritis drug Humira and the breast cancer drug Herceptin were based on immune system research which involved ‘humanising’ mouse antibodies so that they wouldn’t be rejected by patients’ immune systems.

Animal tests are also a legal requirement as a prerequisite for clinical trials and almost all medicines in use today, including those for veterinary use, have involved the use of research animals at some stage.

The EU directive, which was adopted in 2010, is the most progressive and stringent framework worldwide for the protection of animals used in scientific research. It was implemented in UK law in 2013 and is set to be reviewed in 2017 as part of the EU’s normal legislative review process.

Under the directive, regulation across the EU has been harmonised to promote the highest standards of animal welfare. It requires that researchers carry out a ‘harm-benefit’ analysis to justify the use of animals in a research project, and requires that animals are used only where no other method can properly address the research question being asked.

In addition, researchers licensed to work with animals are obliged, by law, to adopt the ‘3Rs’ approach; reducing, refining and replacing the use of animals in scientific procedures wherever possible.

More than one million people have signed the petition across seven EU countries, which means, under Article 11(4) of the Treaty on European Union, that there will be a public hearing in the European Parliament on 11 May, and the European Commission must respond by 3 June.

If the current directive is repealed as a consequence of this petition, the use of animals in scientific procedures in the EU would be banned. This would represent a major step backwards for Europe’s leading role in advancing human and animal health. An increasing amount of animal research may then be undertaken outside the EU, where standards may not be nearly as high as those currently in the EU.

That’s why the MRC has joined around 140 other biomedical research organisations, learned societies, industry representatives, universities and patient groups in calling upon the European Parliament to oppose the Stop Vivisection ECI.

Dr Sherie Wright

Information about the directive and the Stop Vivisection ECI can be found in a list of frequently asked questions prepared by the Wellcome Trust.

Information about how the MRC supports the use of animals in research can be found on our website. The Understanding Animal Research website has information about how animal research has benefited human health.

Information about the UK’s dedication to the 3Rs can be found on the National Centre for the 3Rs website.

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