It was good to see animal research being debated in the House of Lords this week – especially because there was a lovely typo about ‘transgender mice’ (I think the transcriber misheard transgenic). But it’s a serious topic – passions run high and any debate about this issue is very emotive.
On one side are the people who believe animal research is a necessary evil – vital for us to make progress against a huge number of different diseases. On the other are those who hate the idea of harming animals for any reason. But whatever your opinion, the fact is that animal research is legally required in most countries – all new drugs have to be tested on animals before they’re given to humans. And the EU is bringing in a new directive to govern animal research – this was the subject of the Lord’s debate this week.
The whole discussion makes for interesting reading in Hansard, and the AMRC have a great summary on their policy blog. It’s generally agreed that the new EU rules are weaker than the very strict legislation that we already have in the UK, so the issue is how to adopt them without reducing the protection that research animals have here.
But what really interested me were some of the other points the speakers raised. Lord Robert Winston, the only peer with a Home Office licence for animal research, suggested that ‘there is a case for having legislation to make it clear that a particular drug has only been possible for human consumption because of animal testing. This could be stamped on the packet, rather like a cigarette packet.’
I LOVE this idea. I’ve been following media coverage of animal research for a few years, ever since I encountered some pretty ignorant animal rights protesters while I was at university. What’s scary is that most articles about this topic don’t mention what I think is the most important point – animal research is legally required. So a lot of people don’t realise that every single medication they take, on prescription or not, has been tested on animals at some stage.
I remember asking the animal rights protesters outside my lab at university whether they used any medication. Most of them said they did. I was surprised – trying to stop legitimate animal research while you’re benefiting from it yourself seems pretty ass-backwards to me.
But I (perhaps foolishly) expected these activists to have done their homework. The average newspaper reader doesn’t have a reason to look these things up, but if we want to make sure everyone understands why animal research is necessary then we need to make sure people know the facts, whether they agree with the ethics or not.
Imagine if every drug packet you picked up had a message about the importance of animal research. We’d start off with angry debates about it, but soon it would become one of those boring background messages that everyone knows. Which would be so much better than the current situation, where most people are clueless and prey to the misinformation of some campaigners and the news coverage it gets.
Lord Taverne pushed this idea even further at the Lords debate, saying ‘it would be beneficial if every general practice surgery displayed a notice stating, “All the drugs used or recommended in this surgery have been tested on animals” ‘. This would make the advances we owe to animal research much more obvious to the people who are relying on them.
Scientists are getting better at explaining why they sometimes need to use animals in their research, but I think the link needs to be even clearer. Animal research makes almost every person’s life better. We’re paying for it with our taxes and the benefits need to be obvious.