Brussels, 09 Sep 2004
New statistics published by the UK Home Office reveal that the total number of scientific procedures carried out on animals in the UK in 2003 was just over 2.79 million, a rise of 2.2 per cent on 2002.
The UK government says that the slight rise was 'within typical year on year variability' and stressed that it remains committed to the '3 Rs' - reducing the numbers of animals used, replacing animals wherever possible and refining scientific procedures involving animals. However, a number of animal rights groups expressed their concern at the figures, and questioned the commitment of both politicians and scientists to reducing the number of animal experiments.
'There remains a clear need for the use of animals in vital scientific research where no alternative is available,' said Home Office Minister Caroline Flint, presenting the statistics. 'This type of research saves countless lives each year and the government fully supports the efforts of scientists working to secure medical advances and public health improvements.'
However, Dan Lyons, campaigns director for Uncaged, a UK-based anti-vivisection group, argued: 'The reality is that virtually anything goes, and animal researchers are a law unto themselves.' Mr Lyons described the level of inspection as 'completely inadequate' and biased in favour of animal research.
'There are only about 20 inspectors who in the course of a year are supposed to conduct a careful, professional cost-benefit assessment of over three thousand researcher projects [...]. With the best will in the world, the inspectors could not uphold the law properly. But when we consider that over 80 per cent of them are former vivisectors, then the prospects for neutral regulation are bleak indeed,' Mr Lyons added.
Animal rights campaigners were also dismayed by figures showing a 20 per cent rise in the number of experiments carried out on non-human primates, our closest animal relatives. The number of procedures using primates in 2003 was 4799, an increase of 822 on 2002, although the government pointed out that the actual number of individual primates used in 2003 was less than the previous year.
One clear trend to emerge from the statistics is the continued rise in the number of genetically modified (GM) animals being used in scientific experiments. GM animals (98 per cent of which were rodents) were used in 764,000 procedures, representing per cent of the total. By comparison, in 1995 only 8 per cent of experiments used GM animals. According to the government, this trend is set to continue as advances in genetic science open up new and promising avenues of research.
Ms Flint concluded her presentation by issuing a warning to what she called 'extremist' animal rights groups. '[L]et us not forget, this is essential, life-saving research. Scientists carrying out this work have been targeted by extremist groups and the government has made clear that this type of criminal behaviour will not be tolerated. We recently published plans to strengthen the law further to protect the scientific community, who have the government's full support.'
The government is not the only body in the UK concerned about violence from animal rights campaigners. It was reported on 9 September that the University of Oxford has applied to the high court for an injunction to protect its staff and students from attacks by activists fighting plans to build a research laboratory there. To access the UK government statistics on animal experiments, please visit: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/docs/animal stats.html