India Proposes Strict Rules on Lab Animals

NEW DELHI--A fierce debate has erupted in India over proposed rules to create a government-run system to regulate research using animals. Animal-rights advocates say that the current system of self-regulation hasn't worked and fosters an excessive use of animals, while opponents argue that the guidelines go too far to correct existing problems and threaten valuable research.

Issued last week, the guidelines would require all labs doing animal experimentation to register with the government and to receive written approval before carrying out any projects. They would effectively ban animal testing and other contract work for foreign institutions and companies by prohibiting any research done on behalf of unregistered institutions.

The new system would be run by a committee chaired by Maneka Gandhi, minister for social justice and empowerment and an outspoken animal-rights activist. Last week the committee released a survey done by a private advocacy group that found that many of the country's leading research labs do not follow voluntary guidelines for the humane treatment of animals issued in 1992 by the Indian National Science Academy. "[Scientists] are used to doing whatever they feel like," says Gandhi. "Now they will have to fall in line."

Perhaps, but not quietly. Last week officials from the National Academy of Sciences urged Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to prevent the implementation of the proposed rules, which are scheduled to go into effect on 8 October. A dozen heads of biomedical labs and secretaries of the scientific departments also met last week and called for more discussion of the rules. "They are fraught with serious consequences to the progress of biomedical research in India toward new vaccines and new drugs," says Vulimiri Ramalingaswami, a pathologist and former chief of the Indian Council of Medical Research in New Delhi.

Although many Indian scientists agree that there is room for improvement, they say the proposed guidelines, rather than improving animal welfare, will merely add to an already heavy administrative burden. At the same time, some researchers admit that the stick of government regulation may work better than the carrot of voluntary compliance. "Who bothers to implement guidelines given out by an academic body?" says entomologist Vinod Prakash Sharma, director of the Malaria Research Center in New Delhi. "Only guidelines given out by the government have any hope of ever being followed."