Industry, researchers and animal rights groups have reacted with a mixture of applause, qualified approval and fury to the UK government’s newly published delivery plan for its 3Rs policy on the use of animals in bioscience research.

The delivery plan launched by the Home Office, the Department for Business Innovation & Skills and the Department of Health (Working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research) includes a commitment to boost funding for the UK’s National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) from £5.3 million in 2010/11 to just over £8 million in 2014/15.

While the government recognises that its funding for alternatives to research is “a very small proportion of the overall funding it provides to the Research Councils which also fund animal experiments”, it notes that the extra money is being channelled to the NC3RS “at a time when the fiscal consolidation has required substantial funding cuts to many other areas of government”.  

No numerical target

Some animal rights campaigners are incensed, though, that the delivery plan has not set any numerical target for reducing the number of animals used in scientific research, in defiance of the government’s post-election pledge in The Coalition: Our Programme for Government (published May 2010).

As Humane Society International (HIS) pointed out, figures released by the Home Office last July showed the highest level of animal use in research since the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act was introduced in 1986, with a total of 4.11 million procedures started on 4.03 million animals.

The UK remains among the top three highest users of animals in the European Union, alongside Germany and France, HSI added.

Location of choice

Rather than putting a cap on the use of animals in bioscience, the government has outlined a strategy that will “contribute to maintaining the UK’s position as the location of choice and a world leader in science and technology”, while ensuring that “better science is delivered alongside the highest levels of welfare for animals used in research”.

As Universities and Science Minister David Willetts explained, the delivery plan “puts science at the heart of our commitment to work to reduce the use of animals in research. It highlights the important work our life-sciences sector is doing to provide a package that is good for patients, animal welfare, the environment and the UK’s economic growth”.

Animals are only used in scientific experiments “when there are no suitable alternatives”, Willetts insisted.

“But the results we get from research can transform lives and pave the way for new and ground breaking medical advances. By encouraging new cutting-edge approaches to science we will not only improve standards of animal welfare but also reduce costs to industry.”

Twiddling its thumbs

The “long overdue” strategy was roundly condemned by the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), whose chief executive Jan Creamer said animal experiments in the UK had spiralled while the government had “twiddled its thumbs”.

The delivery plan “admits the failings of animal research, yet claims to be powerless to move towards what it calls the ‘better, faster and cheaper non-animal approaches’”, commented Creamer, who called the report “an utter betrayal of animals and of the public, who want to see an end to barbaric and outdated animal experiments”.

Investigations by NAVS “have revealed the pain, suffering and clear distress caused to animals which is inexcusable when there are advanced alternatives already available”, Creamer added.

“It is time for the Government to announce an immediate end to primate experiments, and a timetable for replacing all animals with alternatives.”

Tipping point

HSI gave a cautious welcome to the delivery plan, saying it “shows we’ve reached a tipping point: it is no longer acceptable for anyone – research funders, regulators or bench scientists – to make unfounded claims that animal experiments are the answer to major health challenges”.

The plan also acknowledges “the desperate impasse in drug development, where 92% of new medicines tested on animals fail in human trials”, as well as highlighting barriers to progress posed by “underlying conservatism among journal editors and peer review panels”, HSI observed.   

While practical measures aimed at reducing animal use were encouraging, “we need to see evidence that research funding is actively diverted away from failing animal models and towards human-relevant techniques”, commented Emily McIvor, HSI’s animal research policy director.

Humanity, pragmatism

According to the delivery plan, a 3Rs strategy for animal research balances humanity with economic and scientific pragmatism.

It paints the UK as “a leader, globally, in the adoption of the 3Rs”, which “gives us a real opportunity to accelerate the international uptake of scientifically valid alternatives in research and safety testing”.

While the 3Rs programme is highly challenging, and often requires agreement at inter-governmental level, “the reward is to effect reductions in the volume of animal experiments on a scale well above what can be achieved by domestic action alone”, the plan insists.

“It will also benefit the UK Life Sciences sector … by ensuring that strict application of UK regulations does not simply export experiments abroad. Similarly, harmonising standards internationally will ensure that UK companies with high welfare standards are not shut out of large developing economies which may currently demand additional animal testing not required by most states.”

Industry approval

Not surprisingly, the delivery plan was more warmly received by medical-research groups and industry associations, including the Society of Biology, the Wellcome Trust, the BioIndustry Association, and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of Understanding Animal Research, welcomed a “very clear cross-government statement of the continuing need for well-regulated animal research in the UK”, while ABPI chief executive Stephen Whitehead said the strategic priorities identified in the plan “are areas that our industry is actively pursuing”.

According to Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the “scientific community is deeply committed to reducing the use of animals in research where it is appropriate to do so”.

However, he emphasised the importance of recognising that “advances in medical science sometimes require more animals to be used in research, not fewer, for example the breeding of genetically modified mice to investigate disease. Such developments benefit both humans and animals”.