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25th Sep 2022

EU tightens up animal testing rules

  • Scientific and medical tests on gorillas will be formally banned from 2012 (Photo: Wikipedia/Kabir Bakie)

MEPs agreed on Wednesday (8 September) to overhaul 20-year-old EU rules on the protection of animals used in scientific or medical experiments, significantly limiting the number of animals used in this way and the kind of experiments that can be performed.

Under the legislation, the use of animals in scientific experiments will continue to be allowed for a range of scientific reasons as well as for drug testing, species preservation and forensic investigations.

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However, all EU countries must now make sure that whenever a form of testing exists that does not use animals and is recognised by European law, this method be used instead. In addition, approval should be granted only to tests that use killing methods which cause the least pain or distress, while still providing scientifically satisfactory results.

An ethical and scientific review will have to be done before an experiment is authorised. Anyone carrying out animal tests will also be obliged to have adequate training and apply for a licence.

The new law also formally bans the use of great apes - chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans - although they have not been used in EU laboratories for some time. An original proposal would have seen a ban on other primate testing, notably of marmosets and macaques, but eurodeputies worried that scientific research into neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's would be hindered if the bill were extended to these animals.

The bill, which follows an agreement between the legislature and the member states, sets out a hierarchy of pain - "mild", "moderate", "severe", and "non-recovery" - that may be inflicted during a test.

MEPs also wanted to limit repeated exposure of the same animal to testing, but worried that limits that were too strict would actually result in more animals being tested. As a result animals can be re-used in tests that entail pain classified as "up to moderate," one level higher than had originally been proposed.

National governments will be responsible for carrying out controls in at least 33 percent of laboratories that use animals, some of which should be unannounced. The European Commission will review the rules every five years.

"The new rules are a breakthrough for the protection of animals while striking a sensible balance to keep medical research in Europe and preventing research projects being moved to non-EU countries with lower standards for animal rights," said Elisabeth Jeggle, the MEP who shepherded the bill through the chamber.

Although the compromise with member states improves the current situation, animal rights activists remained critical after the bill's passage. Green MEPs, historically strong animal welfare advocates, also voted against the bill, saying it did not go far enough.

According to Emily McIvor, senior EU adviser for the Humane Society International, an animal protection organisation, although the EU rules concerning animal experiments were "always bound to favour commercial interests over animal welfare", some progress has been done.

"For decades scientists in many member states have been able to experiment on live animals without projects being subject to ethical assessment or compulsory authorisation. Proper scrutiny can now be introduced in these countries for the first time, and the impact that could have on animal welfare must not be underestimated," she is quoted as saying in the organisation's statement.

Pro-testing outfit 'Understanding Animal Research' however called the final bill a good compromise. "The new European law will be a perfect opportunity for the Coalition Government in the UK to bring science and medical progress into balance with animal welfare," said Simon Festing, head of the organisation.

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