Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Animal rights groups blast support for monkey tests

A report backing the use of monkeys in academic research was denounced by animal welfare groups yesterday.

The Weatherall committee, a group of experts set up by four leading scientific bodies, said there was a "strong scientific case" for allowing certain experiments on non-human primates.

But animal welfare organisations condemned the 18-month inquiry as a "whitewash" and a wasted opportunity.

They were especially critical of the absence of animal welfare representatives on the committee and its failure to consider the use of monkeys in drug tests.

Each year about 3,300 monkeys are involved in scientific or medical research in the UK - about 0.1 per cent of all animals used.

Three-quarters of these animals are used for testing the safety of new medicines. Only about 450 are involved in academic research.

It was this aspect of primate research that was examined by the expert group led by Oxford geneticist and professor of medicine Sir David Weatherall.

The inquiry group, set up by the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and the Academy of Medical Sciences began in March 2005.

Over the course of ten meetings, it heard evidence from 35 witnesses, including representatives from academic organisations, animal welfare groups, the government and industry, as well as patients.

A total of 62 written submissions were also received.

The experts made 16 recommendations, including the setting up of a small number of specialist research centres where monkeys could be kept in the best possible conditions.

They envisaged about four centres, each housing around 100 monkeys.

The report also called for more information about the use of non-human primates in research to be made public.

It accepted that new techniques that did not involve animals, particularly in the areas of brain imaging and computer modelling, were reducing the need for monkeys in research.

For this reason, the report said, research proposals involving monkeys should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Michelle Thew, the chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said: "This is yet another whitewash. They say the end justifies the means when it comes to research on non-human primates, but they haven't proved that.

"We don't need new primate research centres," she said. "What we need are cutting-edge new centres looking at modern, 21st-century techniques that don't cause animals to suffer."

Dr Vicky Robinson, the chief executive of the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), which investigates ways to avoid animal experiments, said the report should have gone further.

Dr Robinson said: "It is disappointing that, despite a ringing endorsement for the work being done to reduce primate use, the report did not go far enough in trying to map out the priorities for development and adoption of alternatives.

"Nor did it identify what gaps in our understanding need to be broached to move forward in areas that seem less promising. The committee has therefore missed an opportunity to give some much-needed direction in this critical aspect of the debate on using primates for research, which is central to helping society resolve the serious ethical dilemmas involved."

Story here.

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