Yesterday, the millions of animals used each year in Europe's laboratories finally got some hope for a better future. After seven years of delay, the European Commission has at last published its proposal to revise the now 20-year-old Directive 86/609/EEC on animal experiments. But has it been worth the wait?
Without a doubt the law is in desperate need of an update. Over twelve million animals are exposed to suffering in European labs each year, and yet the legislation that regulates their use is outdated and inadequate. Since the law first came into force, we've seen more than twenty years’ worth of scientific developments, including the emergence of advanced non-animal research methods and an increase in our understanding of animals' ability to suffer. The law needs to reflect those changes, and be flexible enough to anticipate and indeed encourage further changes in the future.
It seems astonishing, but many animals used in EU experiments are actually not specifically regulated under the current law. Monkeys, cats, dogs, rodents and other animals used for basic medical research, or education and training, have not previously been protected through EU legislation.
Legislative progress does seem possible with yesterday's new proposal although there is still a long way to go. A ban on the use of great apes such as chimpanzees has been proposed, albeit with some exceptions. Whilst this is an important step in the right direction, as no apes are actually used in Europe, it's hard to see this as anything more significant than a token gesture.
More important perhaps is a clear acknowledgement by the Commission that replacing all animal use with alternatives is the ultimate goal. Mandatory ethical review of experiments will make a significant contribution to achieving that. With currently no harmonised process across member states, duplication of animal experiments remains a real problem, ethical scrutiny is of variable quality and opportunities to replace animals with non-animal alternative methods are easily missed.
But the biggest change of all for animals and indeed for improved medical research, will come from a sea-change in attitude that we must see emphasised as the legislation is debated. If total replacement is the only morally and scientifically satisfactory end-goal, EU legislators have to ensure that the updated law does everything possible to focus on pro-actively making that goal a reality. It's simply not enough to say replacement will happen 'one day', because without concerted and united effort, that day may never come.
There can be no doubt that methods like human tissue and cell culture, computer simulation and sophisticated imagining techniques offer the way forward. Now politicians have an opportunity to demonstrate that they have the will to make change happen.