Don't monkey with research, says UK

Research councils take issue with 'restrictive' EU proposals on animal use. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 13, 2008

Three UK research councils are objecting to proposals to tighten European laws on the use of animals for research.

They say the proposals - in a new draft revision of the original 1986 EU Animals Directive published last week by the European Commission - could threaten basic research, increase bureaucracy and be costly without bringing significant benefit to animal welfare.

The draft proposes a ban on experimenting with great apes except in the case of an "unexpected outbreak of a life-threatening or debilitating disease"; extends the animals covered to include some types of invertebrates such as crabs and lobsters; increases cage sizes and care requirements; extends authorisation processes; and extends restrictions on animals caught in the wild.

Experiments with monkeys would continue. "At present it is not possible to ban outright the use of animals," the Commission said.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, head of the Medical Research Council (MRC), said that the MRC, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council were all concerned that the new directive could become "too restrictive".

"What they (the Commission) are proposing at times becomes so specific that it could act as a major brake on the acquisition of new knowledge and the development of novel therapies," he said.

He said harmonisation of animal welfare activity was very important but Europe "must not have" a system that was very directive and very specific "because we don't know where new advances for acquisition of new treatments are going to come into play".

The ban on great apes is largely symbolic as they are no longer used in Europe for research. But Sir Leszek said the problem was the narrowness of the proposed derogation. It should "not just be about epidemics", he said.

He said that additional invertebrates should not be included in the rules without better evidence that they may suffer, and that the Commission needed to demonstrate that its proposed changes would improve animal welfare.

The Royal Society also said that the draft directive went too far. Elements in it could potentially create "an unworkable administrative burden" that would be "disproportionate to any gain in animal welfare", it said.

But others, including the Dr Hadwen Trust, said it did not go far enough and had to be about more than "token gestures and bigger cage sizes".

The proposal must now be agreed by the European Parliament and the Commission in a process that is expected to take more than 18 months.

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