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European Parliament Takes a Stand on Animal Research

Approving recommendations made by a committee last month, the European Parliament today soundly rejected calls for legislative changes that could have more severely restricted the use of animals in research.

European scientists had been concerned that the amendments to the 86/609/EEC directive, proposed in 2001, would limit animal research and increase its bureaucracy. As a result, biomedical groups and animal-rights groups engaged in fierce lobbying. However, scientists breathed a sigh of relief last month when a report by the European agricultural committee proposed removing many of the barriers that had most worried scientists. Today, a large majority of the European Parliament voted in favor of the committee’s recommendation. Its report will now move to the Council of Ministers as the debate rages on.

At one point in the process, scientists were concerned that there could be a general ban on all nonhuman primate research. Whether animals could be used for multiple experiments was also an issue largely resolved in the favor of scientists.“The most important [issue is] the removal of restrictions on the use of nonhuman primates and the ability to reuse animals,” said Simon Festing, chief executive of Understanding Animal Research, a British advocacy group promoting the need for humane animal research. The new legislation will classify the upper limits of pain that animals can be subjected to—something that also pleased animal-rights groups. New pain “severity” classifications outline mild (a change in diet or taking a blood sample), moderate, and severe animal pain or distress (arthritis, major surgery, and migraine)—criteria that will inform other parts of the directive.

The changes should also cut the bureaucratic load for “mild” procedures. “We’d rather see inspectors and animal-welfare experts and vets spend time improving conditions for big animals of concern, like monkeys, and not filling in detailed paperwork to changing the diet of a mouse,” says Festing.

However, some elements of the directive could still pose problems for scientists. Cephalopods, such as squid and octopuses, and larger decapods, such as crabs and lobsters, are still protected—a good thing, says Festing, as some adult forms have been shown to experience suffering or pain. But these laws still include tiny juvenile forms: “Lobsters can have around 7000 microscopic babies at one time,” he says, and recording each organism would be a time-consuming process.

Another issue is that the European Parliament is pushing for compulsory data sharing on all projects using animals. But Festing says this would infringe patent law and prove a huge problem for drug companies. What’s more, the task of creating a database covering all forms of animal research, and usefully sharing it, is “well beyond our capacity,” he says.

Even animal-rights groups were partially pleased with the outcome, with the Dr Hadwen Trust, a U.K. medical-research charity that promotes the use of alternatives to animal research, citing positive changes such as improved pain-severity classifications and more investment in alternatives to animal testing. However, it and other animal groups were less happy with other aspects of the changed directive, especially moves to allow the reuse of animals and the use of nonhuman primates in experiments not directly linked to life-threatening or debilitating diseases.

“The Parliament has produced a charter for the multibillion-pound animal-research industry to carry on business as usual, with scant regard either for animal welfare or public opinion,” says Michelle Thew, chief executive of the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments.

But Festing says of the issue: “Our main view here is to get a balance between our ability to do vital lifesaving medical research and the very important welfare of animals. We are committed to both.”

Although the amendments to the animal-research directive were first suggested in 2001, final decisions may not be made for up to 2 years.