Construction group pulls out of vivisection laboratory contract

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The Independent Online

Animal Rights protesters yesterday claimed victory after Montpellier, the AIM-listed construction group, pulled out of its contract to build a controversial vivisection laboratory at Oxford University.

Animal Rights protesters yesterday claimed victory after Montpellier, the AIM-listed construction group, pulled out of its contract to build a controversial vivisection laboratory at Oxford University.

The company's subsidiary, Walter Lilly, is abandoning work on the project after a campaign of pressure from activists, including hoax letters to shareholders urging them to sell out, which has pushed shares down to their lowest level in four years.

In a terse statement, Montpellier said: "The board of Montpellier and the University of Oxford have agreed by mutual consent to conclude, with immediate effect, the contract between the University and Walter Lilly for the construction of the biomedical research facility in South Parks Road."

The university last night said it had already made alternative plans, which it would not be making public, and that building work would continue uninterrupted. But Speak, the group which is co-ordinating opposition to the laboratory, promised to root out the names of companies involved in the work.

Robert Cogswell, a spokesman for the group, said: "We are delighted that Montpellier has made an ethical decision based on the information we provided to them about what is to take place in the labs, rather than one based on profit." Montpellier shares rose 1.75p to 19.5p in relief yesterday.

Speak is backing a legal campaign of protest, which included a 48-hour hunger strike by an 85-year-old anti-vivisectionist last week, and is organising a march through Oxford this Saturday. However, the group refuses to condemn the actions of the extremists behind the hoax letters to Montpellier investors, purporting to come from company directors, and acts of vandalism against sub-contractors including RMC, which is supplying concrete to the Oxford project.

Leading academics and drug industry figures warned that the setback must not be allowed to disrupt the £18m project. They fear a repeat of last year's victory for the animal rights protesters, when plans for a similar animal testing centre at Cambridge University were abandoned because of the spiralling costs of security.

Mr Cogswell said this was precisely what Speak was aiming to do: "We will be very keen on pushing up the costs to the University, because the University is seeing things from a business point of view."

The Oxford University centre is part of a programme of replacing existing laboratory space and will be one of the most modern centres in the country. The drug industry says that animal testing is a legal requirement and vital to check new medicines are safe enough to begin trialling with human volunteers.

Simon Festing of the Association of Medical Research Charities said: "Montpellier's decision will set alarm bells ringing for all those involved in medical research.

"Unless we see urgent action from the Government, the prize of the UK staying a world leader in developing new medicines could slip through its fingers."

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