Based on the available evidence, there appear to be “no valid scientific reasons” to “support a discontinuation of the use of primates in basic and applied research, or in the development and testing of new drugs”, concludes the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks (SCHER).

While a timetable for the complete replacement of non-human primates (NHPs) in research is hard to pin down, the current position should “be regularly reviewed in the light of validated alternatives that are constantly being developed”, the Committee recommends.

The European Commission’s Directorate General Environment had requested an opinion on the issue from SCHER in the context of discussions about revising Directive 86/609/EEC, which covers the protection of laboratory animals across all industrial sectors in the European Union.

In September 2007, the European Parliament adopted a declaration (0040/2007) calling on the Commission to end the use of great apes and wild-caught monkeys in scientific experiments, and to establish a timetable for introducing alternative research models. In response, the Commission said that, given the current state of scientific knowledge, it was not feasible to establish a timetable with a fixed deadline for phasing out the use of NHPs in biomedical research.

That stance carried through to the long-awaited proposal for amendments to Directive 86/609/EEC adopted by the Commission last November, which did not include any provision to outlaw the use of non-human primates in research.

SCHER’s opinion is confined to the scientific aspects of the debate and does not consider the ethical, economic, cultural or social implications of NHP use. The Committee recommends advancing the 3Rs (reduction, replacement and refinement) concept in relation to NHPs, recognising the promising developments of the past decade towards replacing primates in biomedical research.

More specific recommendations include developing validated alternative methods to NHP use; investments and activities that encourage the use of other non-primate species or genetically modified rodents where possible; developing and applying new accessible technologies to refine experimental procedures on NHPs (e.g., non-invasive procedures such as imaging and biocompatible implants); and developing accessible and comprehensive databases and collaborative user networks (e.g., on data-sharing, tissue-sharing, alternatives to animal models).

According to SCHER’s opinion, some 12 million animals are used in scientific procedures across the EU each year, and around 10,000 of these are non-human primates.

SCHER's recommendations are available online at: http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/04_scher/scher_opinions_en.htm#8.