BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe’s environment chief plans to ban laboratory tests on mankind’s closest relatives — chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans — in a clampdown on animal testing by the drugs industry and other laboratories.
But some animal welfare groups and researchers accused the European Union of masking weak regulation with empty gestures, as no great apes have been used in EU research for six years.
“Today’s draft legislation does include a great ape test ban, but as no apes are used in EU research at the moment, this is considered by many animal advocates as something of a token gesture,” said the Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research, a British-based charity which opposes using animals in experiments.
Monkeys would not be spared experimentation by the EU after some European Commission departments intervened on behalf of industry in the EU’s “Great Ape Debate,” animal welfare campaigners said.
“It is absolutely important to steer away from testing on animals,” said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas. “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.”
Some 12 million vertebrate animals are used each year in experiments throughout the 27-nation bloc — half for drug development and testing, a third for biology studies and the rest for cosmetics tests, toxicology and disease diagnosis.
Around 80 percent are mice and rats and primates account for around a tenth of 1 percent or about 12,000 animals.
If the EU’s proposal is approved, member states would have to enforce standards of care for animals, which would only be used as a last resort and in reduced numbers.
Great apes could only be used in experiments if the survival of the species itself was at stake, or in the case of an unexpected outbreak of a life-threatening or debilitating disease in human beings.
Researchers argue that while they already try to avoid using primates, they are indispensable for work to find cures for diseases including HIV, Alzheimer’s Disease, SARS, cancer, hepatitis, malaria, multiple sclerosis and tuberculosis.
“The UK academic sector is concerned to ensure that any further restrictions on UK research resulting from the revised directive are based on firm evidence that better welfare will result,” said Professor Max Headley, of Bristol university’s pharmacology unit.
“Overly restrictive or expensive regulation will not achieve that, since it will cause research to be moved from the EU to other countries, as is entirely possible in a global economy,” he added.
Pressure group Eurogroup for Animals said the EU would have to act quickly to enact the proposals or risk them being stalled by European Parliament elections in June.
Other groups gave the regulations a tepid welcome.
“Animals used for basic medical research, education and training, have been left unregulated, and hundreds of thousands of sentient, fetal and invertebrate animals are experimented on each year without any legal protection at all,” said the Dr Hadwen Trust.
Additional reporting by Michael Kahn in London; Editing by David Holmes