European Union update: Strong rebuttals of efforts to phase-out animal research

April 7th, 2022
Chris Petkov, Marcello Rosa and Renee Hartig

There has been a resounding no to recent efforts to phase-out animal research in Europe.

As we recently reported, Switzerland voted for the fourth time to clearly reject an effort by animal rights activists to ban animal, including human, research. Nearly 80% of voters said no to the ‘popular initiative’ notion. It turns out the notion was not as popular as activists suggested.  

What about other European efforts to phase out animal research?

Anti-animal research groups may think that the United Kingdom is more susceptible to campaigns aimed at ending animal research and testing because the UK has a long history of legislation concerning animal protection. In 1876, 64 years prior to enacting laws to protect human children, the UK passed legislation to protect nonhuman animals, as we have written here.

The UK and EU, as do all other countries conducting biomedical research with animals, have legislation that regulates animal research. For the EU this is Directive 2010/63/EU. Brexit notwithstanding, the UK is keeping to this legislation until they undertake the daunting task to make their own directive. The UK may also decide to stick with the EU Directive on animal research, Brexit notwithstanding.

In 2015, the European Union heard and rejected a call to end animal research: As reported in Science at the time:

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

Image from the Science article on the European Commission rejecting a plea to abolish animal research.

The Commission had this to state in a reply to the European Citizens’ Initiative. “Whilst, the Commission does share the conviction that animal testing should be phased out in Europe, its approach for achieving that objective differs from the one proposed in this Citizens’ Initiative.”. Again, it seems the European Citizens’ Initiative is not a reflection of the majority of European citizens. 

Vice president Jyrki Katainen, responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, said:

… a complete ban on animal research in the EU would be premature and it would risk chasing out biomedical research from Europe.

More recently, the European Commission heard arguments from another European Citizens’ Initiative, asking the commission to more quickly phase out animal research and testing. The European Commission rejected those arguments as well.

The response by the EU Commision includes

…although the science behind alternatives is no doubt progressing, it is not possible to predict when scientifically valid methods will become available that can replace particular animal procedures.

Image from Council on Foreign Relations “How Does the European Union Work?”

The full EC statement can be found here. Several sources have applauded the European Commission for rejecting calls for phasing out the use of animals in research and testing in absence of alternatives to advance knowledge, medicine, human and nonhuman animal health. Alternatives are and should continue to be developed but it is not the case that animal research can be replaced by alternatives at this point in time or the foreseeable future, is the indication given from the EC statement in full. 

No time to get complacent

Animal research remains important and provides societal benefits. Researchers and regulatory bodies also ensure that the research is necessary before it is allowed and that it is conducted in the most humane way possible.

Many organizations, research institutions, scientists, and biomedical companies provided the important information to the EU Parliament and Commission to inform its decision. Because of this the challenge to animal research has disappointed activists…for now.

While, this update from the European Union is encouraging for biomedical advance, those that can appreciate the benefits of animal research cannot get complacent. Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic has made clearer to the public the importance of animal research, including for vaccine development. Yes, the recent efforts to phase out animal research have been resoundingly denied as noted here. Yes, scientific engagement remains important and has been shown to lead to positive perception about animal research by the public

But…we cannot assume that the next set of challenges will not be successful. For instance, outside of the EU, a current review of animal usage for research in the state of New South Wales, Australia, is being led by the Animal Justice Party, and could be part of a long-term strategy towards limiting animal research.

If you believe in the scientific approach and the benefits that it can bring, do what you can to support science each and every day. For example, go out and vote, reach out to your representatives to let them know how important biomedical research is, help tag social media scientific misinformation with #FactCheckNeeded, and share your story here via a guest post on Speaking of Research.

Let us all roll up our sleeves to help.