Animal testing losing favour

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The Netherlands is at the forefront of a global trend turning away from using animals for scientific and commercial tests. Technological advances are making animal testing less necessary and, at the same time, a vibrant animal rights movement is mobilising public opinion.

Recent developments in the Netherlands underpin this trend. Major Dutch research centre TNO has announced it will immediately cease testing on all species of primates (testing on the primates most closely related to humans was banned in 2003).

There are currently about 1,600 primates used for testing in the Netherlands to develop medicines to treat infectious and chronic diseases. Most of the animals used are imported from China.

Cats and dogs
A citizen’s initiative to ban testing on cats and dogs recently got enough support to be presented in parliament. It was ultimately rejected, but only on procedural grounds. Animals Rights Party MP Esther Ouwehand was pleased with the initiative and is convinced the ban will come eventually.

“We need to consider carefully what we are doing with dogs and cats. We want a specific ban for them, like the one we got for testing on primates.”

Research and development has long been a major sector in the Netherlands and animal testing has always played a role. In 2009, the last year for which data is available, about 600,000 animals were used for testing. That is less than half the level of 30 years ago.

Public pressure has increased in the last few years. The Animal Rights Party, the first political party in the world expressly founded to represent the rights of animals, has become a stable and effective factor in Dutch politics. Non-governmental organisations also enjoy popular support and have proven effective lobbyists of both the government and the private sector.

The government strictly regulates animal testing and researchers are required to reduce, refine or replace animal testing wherever they can.

Animal rights extremists are also active in the Netherlands. There have been a number of violent incidents in which research facilities were targeted, although attacks have decreased in the last two years.

Economic considerations increasingly play a role in decisions whether or not to use animals for testing. Alternatives are less expensive and in some cases security measures add to the cost of animal testing. Even those involved with animal testing say alternatives are better. Jan Langemans is director of animal testing at the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in Rijswijk:

“I think we would all want a world free of animal testing. We would be in favour, if it were possible. Unfortunately, we do need to do tests on animals.”

The TNO annual report announcing the halt of testing on primates cites economic factors as part of the motivation. In the light of these developments, the Dutch government is looking into the value of alternatives to animal testing as a potential new niche for the Dutch research and development sector.

The National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has also contributed to a decrease in animal testing worldwide. The RIVM set up a website back in 2006 with physiological and anatomical data on people and animals. A survey of users of the website recently showed that it has helped them avoid 20,000 animal tests per year.

Of course, public pressure against animal testing and increasingly strict regulation have pushed many companies to outsource testing to other parts of the world. Some business has gone to Singapore and China, although figures are hard to come by. Beijing has become a major player in biotechnology partly due to a permissive environment for animal testing.

China too is starting to embrace alternatives, in part because the European Commission is considering a ban on data based on animal testing. Dutch-based multinational Unilever held a conference in Shanghai last spring on exploring alternative to animal testing. Aside from the testing facilities in China itself, the country is also an exporter of primates for testing elsewhere. This is also the case with Indonesia.

While the European Union has already banned animal testing in the cosmetics industry and a ban on sales of cosmetics tested on animals will take effect soon, China and countries in Latin American actually require cosmetics to be tested on animals.