Why we need to make change in order to see change
The Home Office has published the Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals in Great Britain 2019, showing that 3.4 million animal tests were carried out in the UK last year. This represents a decrease of just 3% from 2018, which may indicate a UK-wide failure to fully embrace the 3Rs, despite a commitment by the UK government to do so.
FRAME discusses this possibility, explains what the numbers in the report really show and asks how the figures can be productively used to help support the reduction and replacement of laboratory animals.
The publication of the Annual Statistics helps to provide transparency of the number of procedures carried out on animals for testing and research purposes in the UK. Any small insights the statistics offer should be used to support change, reduce animal use in targeted areas where possible and enable the progression and uptake of robust, non-animal methods. This is because human-relevant, alternative methods have the potential to provide the same, or more relevant information on human responses and human diseases.
Though the 3% reduction in the total number of scientific procedures on living animals is a positive change, we must consider why the fall in animal use has been so small when the government has committed to reducing it.
Government commitment to the 3Rs
In 2010, the UK government made a commitment to put the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) at the heart of a science-led approach to scientific research. This was followed by the publication of the document: ‘Working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research’ in 2014, which set out a plan to deliver its commitment to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in research in the UK. In 2015, it went on to publish a ‘Delivery Report’ to assess progress against the plan, followed by a Roadmap to help progress non-animal technologies in the UK up until 2030.
Whilst the Annual Statistics published by the Home Office do not provide a comprehensive measure of the progression of the 3Rs in the UK, they do offer an insight into the scale of regulated procedures carried out under Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA).
If the development and uptake of non-animal methods increases, and the 3Rs are being implemented and placed at the heart of animal research, we might expect this to be reflected in a larger fall in the number of animal procedures. Whilst numbers are decreasing, in the ten years since the 2010 pledge by the government to the 3Rs, the total number of procedures on animals has only fallen by 9%. This does not necessarily mean the government plan has had no impact, but does indicate that animal research methods are still being heavily relied on.
It should be acknowledged that without access to the bigger picture of all funded research, we cannot say for certain that the reason animal procedures are not falling quickly is because alternative, non-animal technologies are not progressing or being funded. However, we can use the statistics to understand where animals are still being used.
Use of animals in UK research and testing
There is no question that progress has been made in the past decade in developing human-relevant, non-animal methods using in vitro (laboratory techniques outside of the body, often using cells in a ‘test-tube’) and in silico (use of computer simulations/models) methods. These technologies have the potential to replace animal tests. There is also continuing progress in the refining of procedures and development of guidance to improve welfare and reduce suffering of laboratory animals. Together with a growing recognition of where animal models are failing, and where experimental design and analysis can be improved to reduce animal use, we would expect the total numbers of animals used in scientific procedures to be falling at a faster rate than they are.
The UK is recognised as having some of the tightest regulations regarding the protection of animals used in testing and research, and yet in an EU commission report earlier this year, the UK were the biggest user of animals for scientific research. It must also be noted that, historically, the UK has been one of the top recipients of funding from the EU for research. It is possible that the large numbers of animal procedures are merely a reflection of the UK’s position as a world leader in biological research. Therefore, we should also be leading the way in developing and using non-animal technologies.
Whilst the statistics can’t tell us about current research trends, technological advances, changes in legislation or issues such as the current COVID-19 pandemic which might influence the scale of animal use in research, it is prudent to look at the detail in the report to understand where animal use is highest within the UK and where it could, or should be lower.
Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals 2019: the key facts
A total of 3.4 million scientific procedures involving live animals were carried out in Great Britain in 2019, down 3.4% from the 3.52 million in 2018.
These procedures can be split into those for experimental purposes (1.73 million) and procedures for the creation and breeding of genetically altered (GA) animals (1.67 million).
93% of all procedures used mice, fish, and rats. Mice remained the most used species, although the total number of procedures on mice has dropped from 2.6 million to 2.5 million. The number of procedures on rats (over 170,000), rabbits (over 10,000), fish (nearly 480,000) and monkeys (almost 3000) have all dropped slightly from 2018, and the number of procedures on dogs remains similar at just over 4000.
Experimental procedures accounted for over half of all procedures (1.73 million) carried out on animals in 2019. This has dropped slightly from the 1.8 million experimental procedures in 2018. A large proportion of these experimental procedures – nearly 1 million (984,000) – were for the purpose of basic research. Basic research aims to increase knowledge of the structure, functioning and behaviour of living organisms and the environment. The main areas of interest were the immune system, nervous system, and oncology (cancer). These areas have remained broadly the same since 2014. Whilst 57% of all experimental procedures carried out on animals in 2019 were for basic research, 22% for were for regulatory purposes to satisfy legal requirements, and 16% for applied research to investigate disease prevention and treatments.
Just over half of all procedures occurred in universities or medical schools (52%), with 22% of procedures taking place in commercial organisations, and 17% in non-profit making organisations such as disease research charities.
1.67 million of these procedures were for the creation and breeding of GA animals, which has also decreased from the 1.72 million procedures in 2018. 88% of these procedures were to maintain and breed established GA lines and 12% were for the creation of new lines.
Whilst a slight decrease in numbers is promising, we should still be questioning the ethics of the volume of animals required to maintain GA lines and the usefulness of the GA animals being created. In many cases, there are human-based models that could be utilised to provide more relevant information. As new technology develops, and the anticipated increase in the uptake of alternative, non-animal methods occurs, we hope to see the number of procedures continue to fall year on year.
What needs to change?
‘Replacement’ is at the heart of the 3Rs and should be the first consideration before Reduction or Refinement. Researchers and organisations should be asking if there is another way of answering their research question that does not use animals.
It is widely acknowledged that, in areas of safety testing, scientists must consider the effects of a drug, chemical or disease on a whole organism. This may seem complex but can be tackled by identifying specific research questions, or the required endpoints and the tests needed to do this. Since the EU ban on animal testing, the cosmetic industry has managed to move on from animal testing and use non-animal methods for irritation and toxicity safety tests. Whilst the risks and adverse effects being assessed may be less complex, it shows that change is possible. Here, animals have been replaced by integrated testing strategies, employing a toolbox of alternative test methods to gather relevant safety data. This would apply to change in all areas of research and testing – unfortunately, it is not as simple as finding a single non-animal test to replace an animal.
The statistics show that in the UK, regulatory testing for chemical and medical purposes is not the biggest user of animals. This should not be a surprise, as these areas have strict regulatory guidelines and legal requirements, and non-animal methods are being encouraged and accepted, albeit very slowly.
The main areas for animal use appear to be basic research and for the creation and breeding of GA animals, with universities carrying out the most procedures. These are the areas we should be supporting to bring about change. There seems to be a faulty logic in trying to ‘humanise’ animals through genetic alteration to study human disease or using a different species as a starting point to learn about the human condition. A shift in thinking is needed from the grass roots up – early career and future scientists should be encouraged and educated to answer human relevant questions using human models.
This may require a suite of techniques and tests to eventually ‘replace’ animals, but that should be the aim. If we do not focus on where we can bring about change, we should not be surprised that change is not happening. Animals should be the last resort, not a standard practice in all areas of research and testing. Human-relevant methods must be the starting point for human-relevant research, rather than an ‘alternative’ to using a mouse.
This way of thinking will ultimately provide better understanding of disease mechanisms and potentially faster, more cost-effective drug discovery and development, leading to more medicines successfully progressing through clinical trials to market. Without this change in thinking, it is sadly likely going to be the case that we see little change in the numbers again next year.
Read the Home Office report Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals in Great Britain 2019 here.
Here are some responses to the Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals 2019 from other organisations and publications in the field: