On April 29th I attended an event organised jointly by the Parkinson’s Disease Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, the British Heart Foundation and others, under the aegis of the UK Biosciences Federation. The event coincided with the parliament’s consideration of a new regulation on animal testing for medical purposes, and of course we MEPs have been besieged by organised letter and e-mail campaigns calling for a unilateral end to all animal experiments.
Several key points emerged at the event I attended, and they are worth keeping in mind.
Firstly, virtually all major advances in health care in the last century have depended on animal research. Don’t take my word for it — that’s a quote from the Department of Health. I have a list in front of me of breakthroughs that have been based on animal experiments, and it’s far to long to reproduce here, but it includes the malaria lifecycle, smallpox vaccine, corneal transplants (I’ve had two), blood transfusions, kidney dialysis, polio vaccine, cardiac pacemakers, heart transplants, hepatitis C vaccines, bird flu vaccine, stem cell and gene therapy. Human health care has benefitted hugely from animal experiments.
Secondly, the benefits are not just for humans but for animals too. It’s estimated that between 15 and 20% of all animal research is about curing animal diseases, and creating veterinary medicines. Animal experiments have been vital not only for human healthcare, but for animal welfare as well.
Thirdly, the effect of a total EU ban would simply be to move essential research elsewhere. This would damage science and research in EU countries — it might well cause pharmaceutical companies to move other operations offshore as well, costing jobs and investment. But it would also move animal testing to jurisdictions with lower welfare standards than those already existing in the EU. This is the critical point: a total ban on animal experiments in the EU would result in more animal suffering, not less. And quite possibly it would result in poorer science as well.
Of course just about everyone agrees that animal testing should be minimised. The European parliament has done a great deal of work to promote and encourage non-animal testing methods. There has been great progress on non-animal testing methods. And everyone agrees that the testing we do should be done as humanely as possible. The controls and restrictions and certification régimes already in place on animal testing are extremely rigorous. But as of today, there is an irreducible minimum of animal testing which must continue, both for research on Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and for a range of other diseases and techniques. And that research is vital for both human health and animal welfare.
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