On 21st July the UK government released its stats on how many animals were used in UK research and the race was on. Many British universities raced to tweet the numbers of animals they’d used in 2015 and draw attention to their webpages on the subject. Science organisations raced to explain to the media what they were looking at in terms of real-world research. Animal rights groups raced to get their fantasy narrative into as many newspapers as possible.
Upon hearing of a 0.5% increase from 2013, Michelle Thew of Cruelty Free International said “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. This is perhaps unsurprising: in 2012, Thew noted of a 2% rise that “the lack of progress is completely unacceptable”; In 2013 (8% rise), Thew noted “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”; and in 2015, after stats showed a 6% FALL in the animal statistics, she still noted “This lack of progress is completely unacceptable”. Perhaps it’s time for a new speechwriter?
Cruelty Free International also press released that “A shocking 30% of experiments were assessed by animal researchers and the Home Office as being moderate or severe”. This was a bit of statistical trickery. Having just mentioned that there were “4.14 million experiments* completed during 2015”, the 30% only referred to “experimental procedures” and not “procedures for creation and breeding of genetically altered animals” (see table below). The truth is that of the 4.14 million procedures, only 18.2% were moderate or severe (13.7% vs 4.5%), down from 19.2% in 2014 (14.4% moderate vs 4.8% severe)**.
*CFI’s press release uses ‘experiments’ and ‘procedures’ almost interchangeable. The UK tends to prefer ‘procedures’, which is any intervention, or set of interventions, which have the potential to cause suffering or harm equal or greater than a simple injection.
Severity of animal research procedures in the UK in 2015
Hyperbole came thick and fast from PETA, whose own press release noted “126,000 animals didn’t regain consciousness after experiments classified as ‘non-recovery’” before going on to mention severe experiments. Non-recovery studies mean animals are put under with anaesthetic and intentionally given an overdose of anaesthesia to ensure they never wake up**. These animals do not suffer from the procedure – they are completely anaesthetised from the beginning of surgery until death.
**For more information about severity categories in the UK, please read “Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures“.
A special distinction, though, goes to Julia Baines from PETA, who wrote an article for International Business Times that gleefully twists reality to the point that Mark Twain would probably have considered it a credible piece of satire.
“Four million animals were used in British experiments in 2015 – why aren’t we using alternative methods?”
The title is fairly quickly answered by the fact that in the UK, it is illegal to use an animal if there’s an alternative. The author knows this, but still decides to spend another 651 words not mentioning it.
“Britain is officially one of the worst offenders in Europe for scientific animal testing. According to the annual government statistics released today, cats, dogs, monkeys and other animals were used in a staggering 4.14 million experiments in 2015, a figure comparable only to France and Germany throughout the continent.”
Well on a purely empirical level this is false. British, French and German figures are all considerably lower than those in Norway, which used 4.82 million animals in 2014 (mostly fish). Then there is the rather tricky description of animals used. Rather than mention the mice, rats and fish that account for over 93% of research, they pick three species which together account for 0.2% of animal studies in the UK.
“Currently, despite evidence that experiments on animals systematically fail to benefit humans, scientists in Britain …”
This huge statement is taken as fact. No “evidence” is provided. Perhaps she does not wish to bore us with details.
“continue to withhold food and water from animals in order to make them cooperate with experimenters; poison them with ever-increasing doses of toxic chemicals until they die; and attach bolts to their skulls so that they can be “fixed” to a chair.”
There is NOTHING in the article linked to, which suggests food was withheld, or even restricted. The study did restrict water intake for 6 days per week (It was not withheld; animals were always given adequate hydration). We spoke to the study author, who told us:
“All animals get as much food and liquid as they want and need, and the animals are not food or water deprived. We maintain controlled access to food or liquid and give specific amounts for behavioural reactions, and we supplement food or water if they don’t get enough during experimental sessions.”
The second claim is even more egregious, as of the list of 19 studies linked to, NOT ONE involves repeatedly increasing the dosages of a compound until an animal dies. Rather, studies are full of phrases like “Animal welfare costs are minimised by the careful selection of dose levels to reduce the likelihood of unexpected toxicity” and other such animal welfare considerations.
The final claim is misleading due to the information left out. The description seems to evoke images of Frankenstein’s monster. The original paper says “The monkeys were trained to sit in restraining chair in front of a computer with the head fixed”. Surgical screws are required to fix their head. The surgery is done under anaesthesia in a sterile environment.
“Worse even than the fact that these tests are ineffective is that for decades, some doctors believe experiments on animals have actually derailed medical progress. For example, according to Steven R. Kaufman and Neal D. Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and co-chairman of the Medical Research Modernization Committee, we delayed our understanding of polio transmission, heart disease, and diabetes because we studied them in other species.”
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have previously been criticised for their activism and claims by the American Medical Association, who passed a resolution in 1990 that condemned PCRM for “implying that physicians who support the use of animals in biomedical research are irresponsible, for misrepresenting the critical role animals play in research and teaching, and for obscuring the overwhelming support for such research which exists among practicing physicians in the United States” [Page 123]. Their claims about the delayed understanding of polio transmission, heart disease and diabetes have been thoroughly debunked by us before:
All of this also seems to ignore that monkeys were key to our understanding of polio and development of an oral vaccine; a number of animal models were essential for the development of treatments for cardiac arrest and ventricular fibrillation; and dogs were indispensable for the discovery and isolation of insulin to treat diabetics.
Indeed the president of the Royal College of Surgeons said in 1993, “I think there is no doubt whatsoever that all forms of cardiac surgery which depend upon the heart-lung machine were developed through experiments on animals. There is no way that the heart-lung machine could have been devised and developed other than through studies on living creatures”.
“And Richard Klausner, the former head of the US National Cancer Institute, has also admitted, “The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.””
Now we come to the misrepresentation of someone who does have credibility, Dr Richard Klausner, former director of the National Cancer Institute. Speaking of Research has mythbusted before the claim that “We have cured mice of cancer for decades – and it simply didn’t work in humans.”, but it was a throwaway quote lifted from this Los Angeles Times feature. Back in its proper context, it’s a reaction to the pleas made by desperate cancer patients for new cures to be tried, i.e. it means ‘we’re trying!’ Of course, other treatments for cancer based on animal studies did/do work. Why does Dr Baines think we don’t have cancer treatments? Breast cancer drug Herceptin is based on a humanised mouse antibody. How would Dr Baines have acquired this without a mouse?
Dr Baines’ next few paragraphs discuss alternative technologies such as ‘organs on a chip’ and 3D human skin cultures. No doubt these are exciting and important methods which, in their rightful place, can help to improve our understanding of medicine and disease. However, they are just one of a number of tools – including animals – which are used together to build up a picture of biomedical research. To this end I must return to my earlier point that under UK law you must use non-animal methods instead of an animal wherever they can be used. However, sometimes we need a full, living organism – for example neither skin cultures nor organ on a chip get pregnant – they are of limited use in such research. The Home Office website clearly states “Implementing the 3Rs requires that, in every research proposal, animals are replaced with non-animal alternatives wherever possible”. Alternatively check the original legislation – Section 5 (5).
“Seventy-nine per cent of the British public wish to see more exploration of these kinds of non-animal methods. The problem is that at the moment, the scientific community and the government lack the political will to end animal tests. It is unconscionable that of the £300 million in UK government funding for biosciences, only about 1 per cent is directed towards replacing animals in experiments.”
It is unclear where Dr Baines got her £300million figure from since just one of the UK’s bioscience funders – The Medical Research Council (MRC) – allocates some £678 million [p.20] each year to research. Other government funders of animal research include the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC; £334m) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Not all of this funding is for animal studies, for instance the MRC estimates one third of its research programmes involve animal studies. This is likely to be much lower for the EPSRC.
Calculating funding into replacements is similarly hard. The National Centre for the 3Rs, which looks at developing alternatives to animals, had an annual budget of around £10 million (the actual amount changes year to year). The BBSRC estimates they spend £1.5m on 3Rs research. Many other Government-funded projects will involve furthering the 3Rs, but will not be noted as this if it is not the prime objective of the research.
Another problem is in comparing funding for the developing of non-animal methods, with funding for using animal methods. Dr Baines has not attempted to look at the millions of pounds spent using non-animal methods – computers, tissue studies, human studies. Nor has she compared funding into developing replacements with funding for developing new, better, animal models – which will account for only a small proportion of overall animal studies. Apples and pears indeed.
There’s a just a bit of time to fit in some scaremongering before she leaves us.
“But if this nation continues down the same road it always has regarding animal testing, then uncoupling from EU legislation could lead to lowering animal welfare standards and permitting tests on animals that are currently deemed illegal under EU law – betraying both humans and animals.”
This is of course about the UK leaving the EU. What Dr Baines fails to mention is the fact that EU regulations around animal research have never been policed at the European level – they’re transposed into a UK law via Parliament so leaving the EU should not affect them. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that EU law was heavily based on the UK system, which has been in place since 1986.
Finally is the question of pictures. It is unclear if those responsible for the choice of images are Dr Baines or IB Times. The first image is that of a chimp. Now, chimps aren’t used in UK research. No Great Ape has been used for over 30 years in regulated research in the UK, and reading the caption the picture was taken in Germany in 1995. How illustrative of UK research! For good measure we also have some rats but they’re not from the UK either, they’re from China in 2008, a country with less strict animal research laws than exist in the UK. We can see how the images contrast with those taken by The Sun newspaper a few days earlier, showing what a UK lab actually looks like.
Overall, what’s striking about the article is how divorced its narrative has become from reality and I can only wonder at what mental gymnastics are required by the author to convince themselves they’re not purposely trying to misinform.
While we have taken apart PETA’s claims one statement at a time, not everyone has the scientific knowledge to do so. Many are left innocently believing, and even repeating, the claims made by PETA. Dr Baines, on the other hand, should know better. It is disappointing to see any scientist abusing the trust her position affords her by writing articles like this.
Chris and Tom
Speaking of Research