How and why do we use animals in research?

There are few topics as emotive as the use of animals in research, and few topics where public trust is so essential. This is your chance to have your say.

At a meeting recently, one of our clinical scientists described how she had given a talk to prospective medical students about her research. They expressed surprise that medical research involved the use of animals. How, she wondered, did they think new drugs were developed?

There is a lot of misunderstanding and, for want of a better word, ignorance, about how and why animals are used in research. At a series of recent focus groups, for example, participants believed that cosmetics were still tested on animals. In fact, this practice has not been allowed in the UK since 1998 and was outlawed across Europe in 2009, and from this year no cosmetics tested on animals can be sold in the EU, regardless of where the testing took place. 

It is misconceptions such as these that drive home the need for scientists to talk about their work and which partly underlie the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research being developed by Understanding Animal Research (UAR).

Animals are essential for improving our understanding of health and disease, from how mental illness arises from the circuitry in the brain, to improving surgical procedures and developing new medicines to keep us – and our pets and livestock – healthy. We are constantly refining our techniques: in many cases, we are able to replace animal use with new technologies. Of course researchers would like to see the day when animals are no longer required for medical research.  Unfortunately we are not there yet.

As a nation of animal lovers, it is understandable that many of us feel uncomfortable with the idea that we deliberately make our animals sick in the name of medical research. This is why we believe that scientists must be open about their work and what it entails so that the public can scrutinise it and hold them to account.

The UK has some of the strictest legislation in the world when it comes to research using animals. Every researcher who wishes to use animals must apply to the Home Office for a licence and must show why animals are required and that the eventual benefits of the research outweigh the harm to the animals involved. In addition, the Wellcome Trust, like all other major funders of research, insists that researchers demonstrate a commitment to the "3Rs" – the reduction, refinement and replacement of the use of animals in research.

We thought the research community was doing a reasonable job of communicating what they do and how they do it, but towards the end of last year we received a wake-up call. A survey carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the government showed that the number of people who ‘could accept the use of animals in research’ had fallen – not by a huge amount, but a decline in support nevertheless.

Ironically, one reason for this decline may be the safer environment in which scientists now conduct their research. A decade ago, animal rights activists waged a campaign of intimidation towards animal researchers, with threats of physical violence, attacks on labs and even bombs. A small, but courageous, cohort of scientists stood up to them publicly, explaining their work and why it was important. Now, thanks to measures aimed at tackling extremism, such attacks are a thing of the past, but this has meant that scientists are no longer called on as often to explain why using animals is necessary for scientific and medical progress.

When the results of the survey were released, a group of funders, charities, learned societies, universities and pharmaceutical companies united to sign a "declaration of openness", committing to becoming more open about the use of animals. This declaration was only intended to be the start of the process, however; we also committed to developing a ‘concordat’ that would detail the measures that we would take to be more open.

Over the past year, UAR has been leading discussions to pull together this concordat. They have sought input from organisations that carry out or fund research using animals, and organisations that are concerned with animal welfare.

The final version of the concordat is due to be launched in spring next year, but today UAR is launching a public consultation to find out what people think about the proposals and what "openness" around the use of animals in research means to them.

Much is made in the scientific world about "public dialogue" and "public engagement" – the need not to talk at the public, but rather to talk and, crucially, listen, to them. There are few topics as emotive as the use of animals in research, and few topics where public trust is so essential. It would be very easy for the research community to assume it knows what people want to know. This is your chance to tell us what you really want to know.

To take part in the public consultation, please visit www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk.

Nancy Lee is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Wellcome Trust

A labatory technician holds a lab mouse. Photo: Getty
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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.