About two weeks ago I hosted a conference entitled “Progress Without Pain: Alternatives to Animal Experiments” (toghether with MEP Neil Parish, Eurogroup for Animals and Antidote). The purpose was to put pressure on the European Union Commission in light of the soon to be published new version of the 22-year-old Directive 86/609/EEC on the protection of animals used for experimental and other scientific purposes, and to hear the views of four researchers who work with alternatives to animal experiments.
We are very thankful that Environmental Commissioner Stavros Dimas chose to participate in the conference. And, of course, it was heartening when he revealed some improvements in the new version of the live animal testing directive due out in early April (previously promised “before Christmas,” “before the new year,” “in January,” etc.). Postponing it until April must, however, be seen as a considerable delay.
First, some of the positive aspects Dimas presented of what the forthcoming live animal testing directive will contain:
- A ban on experimentation on great apes.
- A ban on experimentation on captured wild animals.
- Future animal testing will be forced to undergo ethical review, perhaps along the lines of the Swedish model, with animal experimentation ethical committees.
Continued work within the European Union’s alternative center, ECVAM.
In spite of the above, the directive will leave much to be desired. Dimas said last night that “The ultimate goal of the directive is to replace animal testing with alternatives” and “alternative methods should be a clear priority.” But formulations of this sort are easy to toss around when, in practice, they have no concrete effect. Even the original live animal testing directive states ”the number of animals used for experimental or other scientific purposes is reduced to a minimum”.
And what has happened in the intervening 21 years? The number of animal experiments has increased dramatically. In 2005, 12.1 million animals suffered in experiments and testing, an increase of 340,000 animals by comparison to the previous year.
What is needed are concrete plans for reduction. In the same way that we have goals in the area of climate change, we should set goals for reducing animal experimentation year for year. Alternatives to live animal testing should be given much greater resources.
ECVAM’s director, Thomas Hartung, gave a very interesting speech yesterday. 175 different modern, animal-free methods have been presented to ECVAM for validation, but the center is unable to test all of these methods with its present level of staffing and resources. The methods have to be validated before they can be released on the market and actually replace animal testing. This can be compared to ECVAM´s first ten years of operation, when only 17 new methods were approved by the center. So clearly there are many alternatives. It would be a great tragedy if we couldn’t even use these.
But the rumour is that there is a great deal of pressure being applied to downsize ECVAM, or even shut down the entire institution. Dimas’ perpetual delays in releasing the new animal testing directive should be seen in this light; industry interests want to blow it out of the water, and would gladly see the world’s largest alternative methods center sink with it.
This is the reality in the year 2008. It’s means a hard struggle ahead to save animals from experiments and testing. That much is clear.
P.S. It was also very interesting to listen to our guest speakers, experts on animal testing from four different countries. Unfortunately, I don’t have time at the moment to summarize what they had to say. A short summary of their research can be found in the invitation to the conference.