A draft Concordat on Openness in Animal Research has gone out for public consultation in an effort to clarify the conditions and regulations governing the use animals in scientific, medical or veterinary research in the UK, as well as the role played by animal experiments in treatment discovery and development.

The initiative, which was welcomed by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) but greeted more sceptically by the UK’s National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS), comes from Understanding Animal Research (UAR), the pro-research organisation formed from the Research Defence Society and the Coalition for Medical Progress.

It follows a Declaration on Openness on Animal Research signed by more than 40 organisations involved in life sciences in the UK last month.

The draft Concordat comprises four proposed commitments to openness, underpinned by practical steps that organisations involved in animal research might take to fulfil these commitments.

Section 24 review

As NAVS points out, the backdrop to the public consultation – which runs until 16 December 2013 – is a government review of Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA).

Section 24 protects confidential information provided in connection with the Home Office’s regulatory activities under ASPA. In effect, NAVS says, this “allows details of animal experiments to remain hidden and exempt from the Freedom of Information Act”.

Removal of the clause would enable wider scientific and public appraisal of animal experiments, NAVS notes, adding: “Only technical details of proposed experiments need be made available – personal details and commercially sensitive information would be protected as they are now, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000”.

The Society also points out that in January 2013 the UK Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 was updated to bring it into line with European Directive 2010/63/EU on the use of animals in scientific procedures. One of the principles of this Directive is public access to information, NAVS observes.

Out of step

In a written statement to Parliament in July 2013, Minister for Criminal Information Lord Taylor of Holbeach said the requirements of Section 24 were “now out of step with our policy on openness and transparency and with the approach taken in other legislation, such as the Freedom of Information Act 2000”.

Any solution to this misalignment “must improve the overall transparency surrounding research using animals, to create an environment which fosters informed debate leading to greater public trust, and also must protect personal identities and intellectual property”, Lord Taylor stressed.

The government has already completed the first stage of its review, which consisted of “engaging the full diversity of stakeholders” in developing options to update Section 24. The next stage will be to present those options for wider public consultation.

Four commitments

The four proposed commitments in UAR’s draft Concordat are as follows:

  • Commitment 1:  We will be clear about when, how and why we  use animals in research. 

This commitment “seeks to ensure that all organisations acknowledge, both internally and externally, that they or their members carry out or fund animal research”, the draft Concordat explains. Signatories should also be transparent about the use of animals in research. 

  • Commitment 2:  We will enhance our communications with the media and the public about our research using animals.

The aim here is to ensure that relevant details about signatories’ involvement in the use of animals in research are readily accessible to the public.

  • Commitment 3:  We will be proactive in providing opportunities for the public to find out about research using animals.

The majority of people in the UK “do not have ready opportunities to learn about and discuss the use of animals in research”, the draft Concordat states. “This commitment aims to encourage more public discussion in the UK about animal research.”

  • Commitment 4:  We will report on progress annually and share our experiences.

Monitoring the implementation of the Concordat will be “important for its success”, the draft document notes, adding: “We will also review the Concordat and our own processes to keep them up to date”.

Mixed response

ABPI chief executive Stephen Whitehead said the association was “delighted” that the draft Concordat was going out for public consultation. “This represents a historic change in how the life sciences sector communicates with the public,” he commented.

The ABPI itself has been “working with key stakeholders in the life sciences sector to improve communications to the public on animal research”, Whitehead pointed out.

NAVS was not so impressed. It called instead for “true openness” about what happens in animal experiments.

 “Although the draft Concordat proclaims ‘openness’ on animal experiments, animal research institutions backing it have no desire to remove the veil of secrecy which shrouds painful and unscientific animal experiments from public view,” claimed NAVS chief executive Jan Creamer.

Creamer invited supporters of the draft Concordat to “prove their commitment to openness by signing NAVS’ statement calling for the repeal of the animal experiment secrecy clause, which will aid true openness whilst protecting sensitive commercial and personal details”.