THE NUMBER of scientific procedures carried out on lab animals in 2005 increased to nearly 2.9m, according to figures released earlier this week by the Home Office.
The vast majority of animals used (84%) were mice, rats and other rodents, with fish and birds making up 8% and 4% of the total respectively, whilst dogs and cats made up less than 1% of the total.
The overall figure, a rise of 1.4%, is the highest since 1992, but one senior scientist said it was distorted by the number of animals used in breeding genetically modified animals.
‘GM animals’ accounted for nearly 1 million procedures, but two-thirds are those involved in breeding GM offspring which are used in experiments. Without these breeding animals there would have been a slight decrease in the overall figure. The number of ‘unmodified’ animals used was down 1% to 1.65m.
‘In a way there is a distortion and what many academics would like is more open debate about it,’ commented John Martin, Director of the centre for vascular biology and medicine at University College London whose lab carries out about 500 animal experiments a year. ‘The overall figure might seem large but when you analyse exactly the number of animals that have been put through severe procedures it is very, very, very small.’
The use of dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates accounted collectively for less than 1% of the total, but primate use was up by 11% with a total of 4,650 procedures - 440 more than in 2004.
The increase reflects more drug safety testing in these animals by pharmaceutical companies, said Dr Richmond, even though commercial drug testing took up fewer of the other tests in other animals.
Supporters of animal testing said that the government's ‘3 Rs’ policy of reducing, refining and replacing animal experiments would not necessarily eliminate the practice.
‘An overall increase is not a failure of policy,’ said Evan Harris MP, the Liberal Democrats' science spokesman. ‘This increase is an inevitable result of increasing volumes of medical research - seen throughout the western world.’
Professor Martin attracted criticism by adding that using animals to study disease was ‘simply a cultural extension of what most cultures in the world have been doing for the last several thousand years in using animals for food and clothing’.
Anti-vivisection campaigners were dismayed at the news of the increase. Alistair Currie, Campaign Director of the British Union for Anti-Vivisection (BUAV) said: ‘Sadly, it’s no surprise that numbers have gone up again. This Government has no grasp of the problem of animal experimentation and no strategy to bring numbers down. Wherever you stand on vivisection this is terrible news.
Everyone agrees that we should try to end animal use – the only disagreement is about when. Unfortunately, Tony Blair has been so busy talking tough on vivisection that he and his Government have forgotten that.’