Science & Environment

UK animal experiment count 'falls'

zebrafish in an aquarium Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Of the animals used for science, 14% were fish while 60% were mice and 12% rats

The Home Office's annual statistics show a 6% drop in animal experiments in the UK - but the office has changed the way it collects these figures.

An EU directive has been adopted that means tests are counted when they conclude, instead of when they begin, making comparisons difficult.

But Home Office staff are "confident" that animal use has, indeed, fallen.

As usual, 50% of the 3.87 million total "procedures" were GM animals, which were created but not used in tests.

That overall figure compares to 4.12 million in 2013. But the Home Office's chief statistician David Blunt emphasised that there was a "discontinuity" between those two figures.

"This means that any comparisons made between 2014 and earlier should be made with caution," Mr Blunt told journalists at a briefing on Thursday.

"The 6% fall is what the data's got, but maybe it's not quite as big as that. But I'm still confident that there's a fall; it may be 3 or 4% or something like that."

Categorising discomfort

Lord Bates, a Home Office minister, said he was "encouraged" to see the number of procedures apparently falling.

"Today's figures indicate the science community continues to respond to the government's firm commitment to adopting measures to replace, reduce and refine animal use," he declared in a written statement.

But the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) condemned the number of "severe" animal experiments taking place.

"The level of suffering animals are experiencing in Britain's laboratories is shameful," said NAVS president Jan Creamer.

"There is an urgent need for greater transparency and accountability in animal research, so these extreme tests can be reviewed and replaced with advanced non-animal methods."

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption The Home Office says that in 2014, 3.87 million animal procedures were carried out in the UK

The Home Office sees its collection of "severity" data as a big step forward in terms of transparency. This is the first set of statistics to categorise animal usage into "sub-threshold" (28% in 2014), "non-recovery" (3%), "mild" (49%), "moderate" (14%) and "severe" (5%).

"We wanted to see how best we could inform the public of what goes on, so that there's a clear understanding of what's involved in the process of experimentation," said Prof Dominic Wells, from the Royal Veterinary College, who was part of the working group which drew up this classification.

"Each individual animal is assessed as to the worst pain, suffering or distress that happened. That can be either the single worst event, or a cumulative series of events that on their own are not particularly substantial, but when added together increase the severity."

Animal rights group Peta was unconvinced, describing the severity system as "absurd" and accusing experimenters and regulators of "a complete lack of compassion".

Down to zero?

In July 2014 Norman Baker, at that time the Home Office minister responsible for this area, told the BBC he wanted to see animal experiments eventually cease altogether in the UK.

Despite wanting to reduce suffering, scientists and Home Office staff are unsure when, if ever, this target can be achieved.

"I think there is a general view... that the overall goal should be reduction to zero," Prof Wells told the BBC. "And when you look at numbers of animals used, we've come a huge way in 40 years. It's down to about a third.

"[But] I don't personally think zero is realistic, because I do not yet see a way that we can model the really complex interactions that go on within a living organism. You can model elements of it, absolutely… but it's still a long way off the really complex, whole animal."

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Primates, horses, dogs and cats - "protected species" - made up 0.8% of procedures in 2014

Dr Judy MacArthur Clark, who heads the Home Office's Animals in Science Regulations Unit, said abolishing animal tests was "an aspiration".

"But you have to balance that against the human benefit, the animal benefit - because many of these experiments are for animal benefit - and the benefits to the environment," she told BBC News.

The accelerating pace of technological developments, some of which can replace the use of animals, makes future-gazing difficult, Dr MacArthur Clark added.

"We're not dealing with a static system.

"From a personal perspective, I don't see... bringing it down to zero as a realistic enough aim to be able to put a time frame on."

Household products

Also on Thursday, the Home Office confirmed that a new ban on animal testing of household products, announced in March, will come into effect on 1 November.

This policy forbids any testing of "finished" household products - a practice that has already largely ended in the UK - and places restrictions on testing of individual ingredients. Such tests, in the latest 2014 statistics, affected 138 animals.

Peta said the ban was "a baby step in the right direction".

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