Biomedical research groups have won a last-minute reprieve from threatened regulations covering laboratory mice, rats, and birds. In a surprise reversal, Congress voted this week to bar the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from following through on a pact with animal-rights groups to draft rules for the animals (ScienceNOW, 3 October).
Animal-welfare advocates were stunned by the development, which became public just as they were celebrating a federal judge's decision to approve the pact after a long-running legal battle. "We are appalled at the lengths to which some biomedical trade associations will go to avoid their legal and moral responsibilities to the welfare of lab animals," said John McArdle, head of the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, which had sued USDA.
Under the settlement, USDA agreed to reverse the agency's 30-year-old policy of exempting rodents and birds--which constitute 95% of research animals--from regulation under the Animal Welfare Act. The settlement was opposed by a coalition of research groups that included the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, and the Association of American Universities.
To stop the pact, the coalition enlisted Wallace Conerly, dean of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. He telephoned Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), the third-ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Cochran responded by adding language to the agriculture appropriations bill that prevents USDA from drafting the new animal-care regulations during the 2001 fiscal year, which began on 1 October. The bill faces a threatened veto by President Bill Clinton on other issues, but Cochran's provision is expected to survive.
The ban "is great news," says Conerly, who worries that new rules would "cost [his university] millions of dollars." NABR's Barbara Rich says the delay will allow policy-makers to "take full consideration of the [settlement's] consequences for research." The issue, she predicts, "isn't going away."