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Animal testing is still necessary today
Executive Director of the European Animal Research Association
While non-animal methods of research are always used wherever they are effective, the scientific value of animals in biomedical research has long been recognised. And although mice and rats are by far the most common animal used, there are some areas of research where more, potentially controversial species, are simply the only option available for scientists.
I want to make the case for why monkeys, whose use in research some find difficult to accept, have played and continue to play an essential role in developing life-saving drugs and treatments, seen most recently in the global research effort to create a vaccine to combat Covid-19.
The two most widely used monkeys in biomedical research are rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) and cynomolgus macaques (Macaca fascicularis), which have contributed to pivotal breakthroughs in HIV, smallpox, and polio vaccines due to their anatomical similarities to humans – they are also essential in basic research into neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In the accelerated effort to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, monkeys played a critical role in testing to ensure the safety and effecitveness of vaccines, before they could be tested on humans.
As Covid-19 vaccine research has made clear, we still need to use animals to develop life-saving and life-enhancing drugs and treatments and we are still many decades away from finding replacement methods for huge areas of biomedical research.
For example, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine relied on preclinical data generated by BioNTech, in Germany, using rhesus macaques, to show that recipients of the vaccine were fully protected against the SARS-CoV2 virus, and to ensure its safety. Other Covid-19 vaccine candidates, such as the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and the Janssen vaccine, have also relied on preclinical testing with monkeys.
Researchers cannot yet produce vaccines for human use through computer simulation, reproduce complex diseases in a cell culture, or assess a functioning liver in a test-tube. European regulations governing animal research only allow research with animals to the extent that non-animal alternatives do not yet exist. Furthermore, if an effective and efficient non-animal method of study was available, no public or private research organisation would overlook its use, particularly in a time of crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
No researcher uses animals in research without both understanding the regulations governing animal research and also weighing up the cost and benefit of animal use, especially when it comes to using monkeys. However as Covid-19 vaccine research has made clear, we still need to use animals to develop life-saving and life-enhancing drugs and treatments and we are still many decades away from finding replacement methods for huge areas of biomedical research.
Animal testing: it’s time for a phase-out
Member of European Parliament, Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance (Luxembourg)
In the European Union, this question was answered in 2010; Directive 2010/63 on the protection of animals in science clearly states the final goal of total replacement of animal testing, thanks to the 3R approach: Replacement, Reduction, Refinement.
However, to this day, every year millions of animals are used and abused for scientific or educational purposes. The great amount of suffering caused by these tests is something which a majority of European citizens refuses to tolerate any longer.
Unfortunately, since the goal of total replacement was stated in 2010, there have been very few concerted efforts in this direction. Unlike the US, we still lack proper funding and a clear timeline, as well as a coherent approach across relevant regulations and agencies.
Even in the absence of massive public funding, the past few decades have brought us ground-breaking and exciting advances regarding alternatives to animal testing. Researchers have and continue to develop non-animal methods, with cultured human cells, in silico (computer) models, and even organoids (artificially grown mini-organs).
While the goal of total replacement was stated over 10 years ago, the change of mentality has not yet been completed. In practice, change has therefore been slow. So slow in fact that we are at risk of backtracking on progress already made.
Beyond the evident ethical questions linked to animal testing, there are very pragmatic reasons to turn our backs on this outdated practice. It is expensive and, frankly, not very efficient. Billions have and continue to be spent on research which lead to results not transferable to humans. A well-known example are the millions spent on biomedical research on the hunt for Alzheimer’s disease, with a drug failure rate of 99%. Humans are not mice, nor rats. We need to promote human-relevant, humane science.
Animal testing is a long-standing ‘tradition’ and, as traditions go, it has been resistant to change. Using animals in research and regulatory testing is what is known and familiar to generations of researchers and to the institutions who fund them. While the goal of total replacement was stated over 10 years ago, the change of mentality has not yet been completed. In practice, change has therefore been slow. So slow in fact that we are at risk of backtracking on progress already made.
In a 2020 poll, 74% of citizens stated that animal testing for cosmetics is a completely unacceptable practice, but, as recently as 2020, the European Chemical Agency de facto overturned the 2013 EU ban on animal testing for cosmetics, with the justification of workers’ safety. Are we really going to re-introduce cruel animal testing for face cream ingredients deemed potentially dangerous for workers? If these ingredients absolutely need to be explored, let us test their safety with human-relevant, non-animal methods.