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European Union Floats Tighter Animal Research Rules

5 November 2008 (All day)
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The European Commission today proposed a ban on the use of great apes in medical experiments as well as a range of other updated regulations governing the care and use of laboratory animals. Although the draft isn't as strict as some researchers had feared, scientific organizations say it threatens to slow research without providing clear benefits to animals. Scientific organizations and opponents of animal research have vowed to push for changes before the rules become final.

The European Union (EU) adopted its current animal-research regulations, which permit medical research on great apes and other nonhuman primates, in 1986. Animal-welfare groups have been lobbying for a ban on the use of nonhuman primates, and last year the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for such a ban. But the proposal from the commission, the executive body of the European Union, calls only for an end to scientific "procedures" on great apes, with exceptions for research that could prevent the extinction of the species or in the case of outbreaks of human disease. (Behavioral studies are still allowed under the proposal.) Because no medical research on great apes has taken place in the E.U. since 2002, many observers see this provision as a token move. The draft also includes a proposal to phase out the use of wild-caught primates, eventually allowing research only with captive-bred animals.

The directive sets out requirements for ethical and scientific review of research involving animals, stressing the "3Rs" of reducing the number of animals used, refining techniques to lessen pain and discomfort, and replacing animal studies with alternatives. For the first time, the rules would cover research on fetal nonhuman vertebrates in the final third of their development and several groups of nonvertebrates that show evidence of pain and distress, including octopuses, squid, and decapod crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters.

Emily McIvor, policy director for the Dr. Hadwen Trust for Humane Research in the United Kingdom, which lobbies for alternatives to animal research, says the proposal is a step in the right direction, although she would have preferred to see a ban on the use of primates.

Scientific organizations, however, have expressed concern that the new levels of regulation will add bureaucratic headaches for researchers without reducing animal suffering. "We are in favor of good regulations," says Simon Festing of the Research Defence Society in London. "But if you're spending all your time filling out paperwork, that doesn't help the animals." Still, he says, the draft is better than some of the early rumors that had emerged from Brussels.

The fight is far from over. The proposal still has to receive approval from the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers before becoming official E.U. policy. "We have more concerns about the Parliament" adding burdensome amendments, Festing says. He says a number of politicians opposed to animal research have refused to meet with scientific organizations. "We have seen little evidence that [members of Parliament] are ensuring that they are informed on the science."

Approval of such regulations often takes more than a year, and it could be slowed further by European Parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2009.

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