The European Commission is due to present proposed revisions to Directive 86/609/EC on the protection of laboratory animals at the beginning of April.

The timing was confirmed recently by Stavros Dimas, commissioner for the environment, at a hearing on alternatives to animal testing in the European Parliament. Commissioner Dimas also gave some indication of where the review process for Directive 86/609/EEC, which covers laboratory animals in all of the EU’s industrial sectors, has been heading.

The aim of the review is to provide additional tools for the development and validation of alternative methods to animal testing and to improve the welfare of animals that still need to be used in research, he told the hearing. The directive as it stands clearly states that, if alternatives to animal testing are available, they must be used, Dimas pointed out. “This will remain unchanged and in addition further measures are foreseen to ensure its enforcement,” he added.

In terms of efforts to improve the welfare of laboratory animals, these will apply from breeding to housing and care to the experiment itself, the commissioner noted. The revised directive as proposed will also introduce compulsory ethical evaluation on a case-by-case basis for projects involving animal testing. “The use of alternative testing methods would be one of the main focuses of these evaluations,” Dimas said.

The ultimate goal of the Commission is to replace animal testing with alternative methods, he told the hearing. But the science is not there yet, Dimas cautioned: “Good progress has been made towards developing full replacement methods; nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that most alternative methods currently under validation are for partial replacement, reduction or refinement.”

He said the Commission was “pushing hard” for worldwide regulatory acceptance of alternatives to animal testing, through its participation in initiatives such as the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) and the European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing (EPAA), as well as through bilateral discussions with third countries and collaboration with international bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Reducing primate research
Dimas also confirmed the Commission’s recently expressed stance on the use of non-human primates in scientific research – basically, that the practice should be reduced to an absolute minimum but at present it is not feasible to set a deadline for phasing out primate research.

A written declaration adopted by the European Parliament last September 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 review of Directive 86/609/EC.