Europe seeks to provide the mould for use of animals in research

March 8, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Can tough European standards on the use of animals in research, from mice to primates, become the basis of a global harmonisation of the rules protecting animals in such situations – including in developing countries?

This was the big question hanging over discussion of the global implementation of what are known as the ‘3Rs’ – the goals of replacement, refinement and reduction of the use of animals – during a session held as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Speakers described a wide differences in attitudes towards the use of animals across the world.

But they also pointed out that the more that researchers from developing countries who have trained in the West return to their countries, the more they can spread the message that good science and animal welfare can go hand in hand.

Richard Fosse, vice-president for laboratory animal science with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, pointed out that Asia has a patchwork of cultures and religions that deal with animals in different ways.

For example, India has a long tradition of protecting animals for reasons ranging from its colonial past to the status of animals in the Hindu religion. “The concept of animal welfare is intuitive,” he said.

China in contrast, which currently uses about 12 million animals a year for research purposes, has less of a tradition in doing so, and although the country has a rapidly developing regulatory framework around the use of animals – at least on paper – implementation was “very patchy”.

But the situation was improving, said Fosse, largely because of rapidly growing number of Chinese researchers who are returning from the West with a well-developed notion of what makes good science.

“The notion of animal welfare is now well established, particularly among young scientists, and the idea of an animal ‘suffering’ is no longer difficult to explain.”

Cambodia and Vietnam presented a different challenge, said Fosse. Both countries are currently the source of many of the primates used in Western research laboratories. And as this use is reduced, both countries were now looking at the potential of building up their own research organisations using primates.

Octavio Presgrave from Brazil’s National Institute of Quality Control in Health, described how Latin America has recently seen a dramatic rise in discussions about animal welfare, leading to tighter regulations in countries ranging from Argentina to Cuba.

There was a general agreement, however, that the most advanced animal welfare legislation is in Europe, where EU member states have a long tradition of incorporating the 3Rs into their laws and policies.

The most recent of these was a key directive agreed in 2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, which came into force at the beginning of this year.

Thomas Hartung, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, pointed out that Switzerland – which is not a member of the European Union and not therefore required to follow these standards – had nevertheless agreed to require its pharmaceutical industry to do so.

“Other countries could be persuaded to adopt this approach,” Hartung suggested. He argued that regulators could take a more pro-active role in ensuring that countries which export products to Europe followed good European practice in the use of animals, for example in testing pharmaceutical products.

The lesson that emerged from the session was that developing countries are likely to resent changes if they feel that they are being imposed from the outside, particularly if they conflict with deep-rooted cultural values.

But if scientists in these countries accept the logic of the European approach, combining the needs of high-quality science and animal welfare, they will realise that the two are not necessarily incompatible.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

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