Phasing out animal testing would harm research, the European Commission says.

Phasing out animal testing would harm research, the European Commission says.

JANET STEPHENS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

European Union rejects plea to end animal research

The European Commission has rejected a plea to abolish animal research across the European Union, saying that doing so would harm biomedical research.

On 3 March, a so-called European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) signed by 1.17 million signatories formally urged the commission to scrap a 2010 directive regulating the use of animals in scientific research and to propose new rules phasing out animal research in favor of “more accurate, reliable, human-relevant methods.” In reaction, many science organizations and a group of Nobel laureates spoke out in defense of animal research.

The commission had until yesterday to consider turning the ECI, called Stop Vivisection, into legislation. In its official response, the commission broadly sides with animal research advocates. As to the petition signers, “we agree with your goal, we share your belief that animal testing should be phased out,” budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva said after a meeting of the College of Commissioners in Brussels yesterday. However, “it is premature at this stage to abruptly put a stop to animal testing because too many scientific advances are dependent on this form of testing,” Georgieva told reporters.

Several scientists and research organizations praised the decision to stick with the existing E.U. legislation on the protection of research animals, saying it is drafted to help reduce, refine, and replace the use of animals in the lab. “Animal welfare in research settings has made such great strides that the arguments of antivivisection groups have become largely baseless,” said Jan Schnupp, professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, in a statement relayed by the Science Media Centre in London. “Hopefully we can start to put their propaganda behind us and celebrate and honor the high ethical standards and the enormous scientific achievements of the biomedical research community.”

The commission said it will seek to speed up the development and uptake of alternative methods, and to better monitor compliance with the directive in member states. But animal welfare groups say that's not enough. The Eurogroup for Animals in Brussels, for one, “is very disappointed that there is not even a minimal commitment to funding alternatives under programmes like [the E.U.'s research funding program] Horizon 2020 in the Commission’s Communication.” In particular, “more investment is needed in other areas [than toxicology], such as biomedical research,” which accounts for about two-thirds of animal tests in Europe, said the Eurogroup for Animals' Director Reineke Hameleers in a statement yesterday.

This is the third ECI submitted to the commission since this tool for direct democracy was introduced 3 years ago. (The second one also focused on scientific research: It sought to ban E.U. funding for research on embryonic stem cells.) All three initiatives have now been rejected, adding to the discontent of citizens' groups that say that ECIs lack teeth and that their rules are impractical.