The main theses of animal rights activists and the counter-arguments of scientists

Animal trials do not respect the universal value of life

Do people have the right to kill animals in order to improve human health? Are a human life and the life of an animal of equal value? Extremist animal rights activists see no difference. However, can we consistently sustain this position in practical terms? Can we avoid consumption or use of foods, drugs, apparel or other objects of use to us that does not entail either directly or indirectly the sacrifice of the lives of animals? More importantly, when making laws concerning a field with immediate human health impacts, does the State have to consider only the positions of extremist animal rights activists?

Animal trials serve no purpose and are anti-scientific because there are too many differences between human beings and animals

The legal premises is that “While it is desirable to replace the use of live animals in procedures by other methods not entailing the use of live animals, the use of live animals continues to be necessary to protect human and animal health and the environment”. The more extreme animal rights activists do not believe this to be the case since laboratory animals differ, and what works or is toxic in one animal may not work or be toxic in another. However, most scientists believe animals can provide a satisfactory model for studying the mechanisms of diseases. Choice of species is not left to chance. It depends on the level of complexity of the species in question, our knowledge of the species, the extent to which it is ‘naturally’ prone to the disease being studied, or similarities between a given organ and its human counterpart. Mice, for example share 85% of their genetic makeup with humans, and the functions of genes are identical (rodents are probably at the root of the evolutionary tree that led to Homo sapiens). It has been estimated that predictability in animal models stands at 70%, varying from 30% in the case of skin to 90% in the case of blood. Unforeseeable toxicity stands at 30%. It is up to the scientists to render cell tests as efficacious as possible so that as many projects as possible can be terminated at that stage thereby bringing ahead only such therapies as are extremely likely to be of therapeutic value to patients.

Methods exist that can be adopted as alternatives to animal trials, but no one want to develop or apply them.

The new directive defines itself “as an important step towards achieving the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so. To that end, it seeks to facilitate and promote the advancement of alternative approaches”. The critics of this law claim that alternative methods (computerised simulations, in vitro tests) are already available. Others claim that not enough is being done to develop them and that industrial lobbies are pressurising people to avoid development. For their part, most scientists conclude that, while having contributed to limiting recourse to animals, such methods (e.g. computerized molecule screening procedure for a preliminary creaming of candidate drugs, or modern imaging methods to monitor the progress of a therapy or the stages of a disease, with no need to sacrifice animals, not to mention the use of limited numbers of animals) cannot as yet completely replace animal trials. A single cell is not a whole organism, and a simulation will never reach the level of sophistication required for predicting all possible variables linked to an organism’s reaction to treatment.

Scientists want to save money, so they use animals, because the alternatives are costly

Lab animals are actually a heavy cost burden for research centres (they make up the top item of expenditure after salaries and wages). Animals require care and attention, both for maintenance and treatment. There is some emotional involvement. Time-consuming bureaucratic procedures must be adopted when using animals. If at all possible, doing without animals might represent a considerable economic saving. Indeed, in view of the lack of funds for researchers, such decisions might meet with considerable approval.

The new law allows indiscriminate use of stray animals in laboratories.

This claim is definitely an attention-grabber, on a public opinion level, because our thoughts go to pets, like cats and dogs. Animal rights activists can therefore bring public opinion over to their side with little effort. But what does the law actually say? On the question of stray animals, the law states that “Stray and feral animals of domestic species shall not be used in procedures”, except when there is an “essential need for studies concerning the health and welfare of the animals or serious threats to the environment or to human or animal health” or if “there is scientific justification to the effect that the purpose of the procedure can be achieved only by the use of a stray or a feral animal”.

Use of primates is unethical because they are too similar to us

Given their genetic proximity to us and their highly developed social skills, the use of primates during scientific procedures does raise specific ethical and practical issues. As the law stands, it is thought that, given the state of knowledge at present, the use of non-human primates is still necessary. However, given the delicacy of the question of their use, a special procedure is required for authorisation, “only in those biomedical areas essential for the benefit of human beings, for which no other alternative replacement methods are yet available. Their use should be permitted only for basic research, the preservation of the respective non-human primate species or when the work, including xenotransplantation, is carried out in relation to potentially life-threatening conditions in humans or in relation to cases having a substantial impact on a person’s day-to-day functioning, i.e. debilitating conditions.”

Trials cause useless suffering for the animals involved

According to the law, “The choice of methods should (…) ensure the selection of the method that is able to provide the most satisfactory results and is likely to cause the minimum pain, suffering or distress. The methods selected should use the minimum number of animals that would provide reliable results and require the use of species with the lowest capacity to experience pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm”. The law also orders researchers to set “an upper limit of pain, suffering and distress above which animals should not be subjected in scientific procedures”. Concerning re-use of trial animals, the law only permits this if “the actual severity of the previous procedures was ‘mild’ or ‘moderate’” and if “it is demonstrated that the animal’s general state of health and well-being has been fully restored”.