Technology: You might not like it, but labs are our lifeblood

Bully-boy tactics by anti-vivisectionists are threatening the future of medical research in Britain. Stopping all animal testing would do more harm than good, argues Tim Webb
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The Independent Online

Animal testing is not a subject many of us are comfortable talking about at the best of times, and certainly not right now.

The construction company Montpellier Group said last week that it would halt building work on Oxford University's new research laboratory, which will use animals for experiments. Over the past couple of months, animal rights extremists have targeted Montpellier's employees and shareholders. Montpellier had maintained it would not give in to bullying tactics, and the Government and industry groups made supportive noises - but did nothing practical to help the company. In the end, the pressure was too much to bear.

Oxford University says it is in talks with more than one building contractor to take over from Montpellier, but not surprisingly, will not name names. The laboratory, which is due to be completed at the end of next year, could still be built.

Huntingdon Life Sciences, the animal testing company forced to relist in the United States after its shareholders, advisers and lenders were targeted, still runs its original facility in Cambridgeshire, where animal testing is carried out as before. The intimidation tactics have not led to a mass exodus from the UK of pharmaceutical or biotech companies that carry out animal testing - yet. But the speed with which companies roll over and give in to extremists, and the lack of protection they receive, will hardly encourage more pharmaceutical R&D to be based in the UK.

The pharmaceutical industry has put a lot of effort into trying to win the ethical debate, explaining to the public why animal testing is necessary - with limited success. Possibly because of the controversial nature of vivisection, and conscious of its public image of mega-rich "Big Pharma", it has not pressed the business case for animal testing. It should. The impact on the pharmaceutical industry, and the economy at large, if animal rights activists succeeded in driving vivisection out of the UK would be huge.

Some argue that vivisection is not necessary at all. It is possible, in theory, to split animal testing from other parts of R&D, but this would be expensive and impractical. Scientists maintain that it would be unethical to sell drugs that have not already been tested on animals, and that computer simulations are no substitute for experimenting on organisms. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry says that removing animal testing would have a major impact on overall R&D. "Animal testing is a vital part of research," says ABPI spokesman Richard Lay. If experiments on animals no longer took place in the UK, it is likely they would just be moved somewhere else where controls and regulations designed to minimise suffering to animals would be more lax.

Even the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (Frame) argues that a complete ban would have devastating consequences.

Dr Robert Combes, the science manager at Frame, says: "It would have a dramatic effect on the UK-based companies and would force non-UK companies with UK bases to relocate their testing facilities. The economic consequences would be large-scale redundancies, increased cost of medication being passed to UK consumers and fewer new drugs reaching the market."

The drugs industry is the UK's third largest exporter, behind oil and power generating machinery, according to the latest figures from Customs & Excise. In 2001, pharmaceutical companies employed 65,000 people, just under half of them in R&D. Around a quarter of all R&D spending in the UK comes from the drugs industry.

No other branch of manufacturing spends more on R&D, as a proportion of its sales, than the drugs companies. In 2001, they spent £3bn, representing 35 per cent of total sales. The next biggest R&D spend is in the aerospace industry, which in 2001 spent 10 per cent of its total annual sales, according to figures from the Department of Trade and Industry.

The drugs industry also generates more income for the UK economy than other industries of similar size, according to the Pharmaceutical Industry Competitiveness Task Force, a joint body run by the DTI and the Department of Health. The economic benefits it lists includes the "spillover" from R&D helping universities, the NHS and other industries. For example, in addition to the 5,000 registered project licence holders (scientists allowed to carry out experiments on animals), 15,000 people are employed to look after the animals themselves. The task force concludes that "a complete and instant reallocation of its resources to another industry would lead to less income for the UK".

If the UK pharmaceutical industry did not exist, according to the task force's analysis for 1998, exports of £5.9bn and production for domestic use of £5.2bn would be lost. The trade balance would widen by up to £11bn, although this figure would be much higher today because the industry has since grown and more of its exports would have to be replaced to balance the books. Losing exports from drugs companies would have a huge impact on the UK's current global trade deficit of £4.6bn, weakening sterling and stoking inflation.

The Home Office estimates that in 2002, almost 2.75 million scientific experiments involving animals were carried out. Of these, around a third were used to research new treatments for diseases such as cancer, another third were part of general research for the benefit of humans and animals, and just under a third were gene-based experiments. Only 5 per cent were used to test the safety of non-medical items such as food and chemicals for industry.

The number of animals used in experiments has almost halved in the past 25 years. But there is no doubt that this number can be cut further and the suffering of laboratory animals minimised. The DTI and Home Office have set up the National Three R Centre to look at ways of reducing vivisection, replacing it with computer-based modulations and screening, and refining animal experiments to reduce suffering.