Annual data from the Home Office has shown a 6% drop in the number of animals used for scientific experimentation in UK labs.

The number of experiments launched in 2014 involving animals came in at 3.87 million compared to 4.12 million in 2013, but around 50% is accounted for by genetically modified animals created but not subsequently used in any tests.

The downturn has been widely applauded by ministers and the scientific community, but a direct comparison with last year’s results is difficult as the Home Office has changed the way in which is categorises the data. This year, figures were based on the number of animal studies completed but, in 2013, the data was centred on the number of trials started during in the period.

Seeking to assure the skeptics, David Blunt, Home Office chief statistician, reportedly told a news briefing “we believe there’s a genuine fall”, but Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of Understanding Animal Research, said while it's “heartening” to see the numbers coming down “we will need to look at next year's statistics before we can talk about definite trends”, reports the Press Association.

For the first time, the figures also include ‘severity data’ in line with EU policy, under which scientists have to report actual severity levels imposed during their research rather than predicting any potential harm beforehand.  

This shows that, of the 1.93 million experimental procedures carried out on animals last year, 51% were considered to cause ‘mild’ harm, 25% ‘moderate’ and 8% (150,000) ‘severe’, which campaign group FRAME (Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments) says is of “deep concern”. 

Not an accurate picture?

“The level of animal suffering, as revealed by these statistics, is shocking,” said Michelle Thew, chief executive of Cruelty Free International. She also argues that, because of the way in which the severity assessment is carried out, the figures still likely fail “to accurately reflect the true picture of what is happening to the millions of animals used in UK laboratories.” 

“The UK should be leading the way in reducing animal testing, yet we remain one of the world’s largest users of animals in experiments. This lack of progress is completely unacceptable. We need to see meaningful and lasting changes for animals in laboratories.”

FRAME’s scientific director Gerry Kenna said the new statistics “will help us identify where efforts can be concentrated in order to minimise, and ultimately replace, current animal models, and especially those that bear little or no relevance to human biology”.

But Jeremy Farrar, director of UK research charity the Wellcome Trust, also pointed out that “many of the advances in medicine that we rely on every day have been made possible by knowledge gained from animal experiments,” and stressed that the Trust supports the continued use of animals in research “when alternative methods are not available and where the potential benefits to human and animal health are compelling”.