The European Commission has declined to set a deadline for phasing out the use of non-human primates in scientific research, saying this is “not possible at present as scientific development has not reached the stage that would make such a programming realistic”.

It was responding to a written declaration adopted by the European Parliament last September, which called on the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament to establish a timetable for replacing all primates used in scientific research with suitable alternatives as part of the current review of Directive 86/609/EC. According to the declaration, over 10,000 primates are used in experiments in EU laboratories each year.

Noting that experiments on non-human primates have been “one of the central points of focus” throughout the preparatory work for the revision of Directive 86/609/EEC, the Commission said primates were already used “only in exceptional circumstances where no alternative methods are available and no other species may suffice for the purposes of the research”. In the majority of these cases (67%), it added, primates were required by legislation for testing the safety and efficacy of pharmaceuticals.

Among the species still used for scientific research are macaques, marmosets, vervets and baboons. A number of EU member states have taken legislative action to prohibit the use of great apes for experiments, and the last use of great apes in the EU (chimpanzees) was reported in 1999, the Commission pointed out.

It is also looking at the possibility of banning the use of great apes in experiments throughout the EU, other than in research aimed at the preservation of the species. “A similar approach is being considered for animals caught in the wild, with specific exceptions on scientific grounds,” the Commission said.

Given the current state of knowledge, though, using other species of non-human primates in limited numbers remains “unavoidable for several vital research programmes”, such as those addressing immune-based diseases (e.g., multiple sclerosis), neurodegenerative disorders (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc), infectious diseases (HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, hepatitis, severe acute respiratory syndrome, etc.) and other serious conditions, the Commission stated.

It noted that 12 out of 17 diseases listed by the World Health Organization under its programme to fight epidemics and pandemics required the use of non-human primates during the development, production or testing of related vaccines and medicines.

“Some alternative techniques are available and have been successfully used to reduce our need to resort to non-human primates,” the Commission commented. “However, it is recognised that, with the current scientific knowledge, not enough alternative methods are yet available to replace the use of non-human primates in all areas of biomedical research today, nor in the near future.”

Amendments to Directive 86/609/EC, which provides for the protection of laboratory animals in research across all EU industrial sectors, “can incorporate strong incentives combined with a specific review clause to provide the appropriate and effective mechanism to move towards the ultimate goal of phasing out the use of non-human primates in experiments”, the Commission promised. It is “convinced that this goal can only be achieved with a vision, close co-operation and combined effort of all concerned”.

The UK's Biotechnology Industry Association (BIA) said it “strongly welcomes this robust response from the European Commission” to Parliament’s written declaration.