• Gorilla - no longer used in experiments but now to be protected by law (Photo: Wikipedia/Kabir Bakie)

EU animal testing bill worries scientists

06.11.08 @ 09:20

  1. By Philippa Runner

The European Commission has proposed stricter controls on the use of animals in medical testing, including a symbolic ban on experiments on great apes, worrying the scientific community.

The draft directive - in the making for eight years - would outlaw testing on chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangoutans, unless experiments were needed to counter a new epidemic of life-threatening illness.

Use of other primates - such macaques and marmosets - and all animals "likely to experience pain" would be restricted, with measures including ethical evaluations of all new projects by a "competent authority" and rules on appropriate cage size and living environments.

About 12 million animals are used in experiments each year in the EU, the vast majority of which are rats and mice, with monkeys making up just 0.1 percent, Reuters reports. Great apes, however, are no longer used.

Half of all tests are for new drugs, a third for biological research and a small minority for cosmetics products. The EU's new REACH chemicals safety laws may increase the number of tests on substances used in everyday products.

Experiments on primates tend to focus on neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis, as well as complex pathologies such as HIV, malaria and cancer.

"It is absolutely important to steer away from testing on animals," environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said, hitting a political note that backs the anti-testing side.

"Scientific research must focus on finding alternative methods to animal testing, but where alternatives are not available, the situation of animals still used in experiments must be improved."

Animal rights campaigners such as the Dr Hadwin Trust for Human Research gave the proposal a guarded welcome, but plan to lobby MEPs to extend the directive to cover sentient invertebrates and animal foetuses, and to ban any test that causes "severe or prolonged pain."

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Europe to lead the world in ending animal experiments and replacing them with the most technologically advanced non-animal techniques science can offer," the group's Emily McIvor said.

Some scientists worry the new legislation will drive animal testing out of Europe to overseas centres, where animals will receive worse treatment than at present, however.

The scientific community is also concerned that MEPs will further tighten up the directive to score political points.

"We are dismayed that some members of the European Parliament are burying their heads in the sands of anti-vivisection propaganda, refusing to even meet researchers or visit animal facilities," Simon Festing, director of the Research Defence Society, told the Telegraph.

"I do despair of the constant battles that we have to fight just to continue to do good science and to save lives. These waves of anti-science we keep experiencing are disquieting," Oxford University neuroscientist Tipu Aziz said in the Guardian.