How can we measure suffering over animal testing?

The debate over animal research would be better served with more information, says Gareth Chadwick

Animal testing and research has long been a controversial, much-debated subject. Public opinion is widely varied, often depending on the nature of the research in question, which varies enormously in type, purpose and outcome.

Animals are used worldwide to test products ranging from shampoos (although not in the UK, where the testing of cosmetics on animals is illegal) to pioneering pharmaceuticals that may help in the treatment of diseases such as cancer and HIV.

Indeed, supporters argue that vaccines for diseases such as rabies, polio and TB could not have been developed without animal testing. Launching a report by the Academy of Medical Sciences into the use of animals in research in December 2006, Jo Tanner, chief executive of the Coalition for Medical Progress, said that "the carefully regulated use of non-human primates in medical research has led to the development of many of the treatments we currently take for granted. And if we are to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease or vaccines against Malaria and HIV, we will need to carry out research using a small number of primates."

At the same time, Sir David Weatherall, chair of the group that undertook the 18-month study, said: "there is a scientific case for careful, meticulously regulated non-human primate research, at least for the foreseeable future."

However the RSPCA greeted the findings with alarm. Supporting a landmark report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which stated that research without causing harm to animals "must be the ultimate goal", RSPCA senior scientist Dr Penny Hawkins said: "The RSPCA expected the Weatherall Committee to challenge the necessity and justification for primate use in an open-minded and innovative way, but in our view it has not done that. All it has done is defend the status quo, which is just not good enough."

And in September this year, European MPs voted overwhelmingly for the Commission to phase out the use of primates.

So despite the findings of the Weatherall report, there is growing public concern surrounding the ethical and moral acceptability of all testing on animals, medical or otherwise.

A 1999 MORI opinion poll conducted for New Scientist magazine is still one of the most comprehensive, unbiased studies into public attitudes towards the subject to date. The results revealed that 64 per cent of those questioned did not want scientists to be allowed to conduct tests on live animals.

Investigations into the safety of new medicines in particular can cause significant pain and suffering, and the vast majority of all animals used for research are destroyed as part of the experiment or when no longer required.

Mice, rats and other rodents are the most commonly used animals for research, accounting for 85 per cent. Dogs, cats, horses and primates are subject to special protection and account for less than 1 per cent of laboratory animals collectively.

The use of primates is a particularly contentious issue, and the relatively small percentage used in research nonetheless amounts to a considerable number. Every year in the UK, around 3,000 non-human primates (predominantly marmosets and macaques) are used for research and testing. For the EU as a whole, the figure stands at approximately 10,000.

Non-human primate research primarily looks at the development and testing of medicines and vaccines. Primates are also used for biological investigations, such as research into behaviour and brain function.

There are regulations in place to minimise the suffering of animals used in research, which state that animal experiments must not be conducted if a realistic alternative is available. Moreover, animal testing must be licensed by the Home Office, which awards a "severity level" that dictates the maximum level of suffering permitted, based on the nature of the procedure.

However, there is controversy surrounding this system. Home Office statistics on the use of animals for testing apply solely to estimates of procedural severity levels provided before the investigation has taken place. Information on the actual level of suffering during the investigation is not reported or published. It is due to this lack of information that out of five research animal indicators in the RSPCA report, three have insufficient data to assess trends. Without this information, it is difficult to gauge how much animals are suffering and for what purpose, and whether the situation is improving.