Global Report: Break with Tradition

Pharma's battle against animal-rights activists has been long-lasting and decidedly uphill. But now, with the Prime Minister on its side, industry sees light at the end of the tunnel.
Aug 31, 2006


Sarah Houlton
The united kingdom is emerging as a leader in industry's struggle to defend its use of animal testing. In late June, the European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing announced its first action program, intended to refine animal tests. The move came one month after Prime Minister Tony Blair signed an online petition set up by the Coalition for Medical Progress in support of essential medical research using animals.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Blair said that this break with tradition—giving an issue public prime-ministerial support—is a sign of how important he believes it is for people to stand up against the "tiny group of extremists threatening medical research and advances in this country."

Current indications are that industry is beginning to win the battle against extremists. The number of attacks on private homes—perhaps the extremists' most distressing tactic—has dropped dramatically, according to recent figures from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). In the first six months of this year, the number fell to 15—less than half the number that took place in the same period in 2005, says Richard Barker, director general of ABPI. "I think we are now past the tipping point," says Barker.

A survey by YouGov, a market research agency, backs up this notion. It indicates that public revulsion at the antics of the extremists is damaging their cause; more than three-quarters believe the worst offenders deserve to be deemed terrorists.

The changing public mood was mirrored by the severe jail sentences recently meted out to three animal-rights extremists. They were charged with a concerted campaign of terror against the owners of the Darley Oaks guinea pig breeding farm in Staffordshire, which ultimately led to its closure. After six years of bombings, death threats, and vandalism, the final straw was the theft of one of the owner's late mother-in-law's body from a nearby churchyard.

The 12-year jail sentences were widely welcomed: In the YouGov survey, 45 percent of respondents thought the length was about right; 40 percent believed the sentences should have been longer.

A big factor in the recent groundswell has been the Pro-Test campaign, founded in January by a 16-year-old schoolboy, Laurie Pycroft, whose aim is to counter arguments of the animal-rights lobby. Pro-Test's first public demonstration in February gained widespread news coverage and support from numerous high-profile scientists. It continues to organize public displays of support—notably, in the long-running battle between Oxford University and demonstrators against its new biomedical research laboratory, which is currently under construction.

While there has been a reduction in the frequency and severity of attacks since the implementation of new laws (see "Animal Attacks," Pharm Exec, October 2005), the extremists recently found themselves another—softer—target. A previously unknown group going by the name of Campaign Against Huntingdon Life Sciences wrote to a number of individual shareholders at GlaxoSmithKline, many of them elderly. The message? If they did not sell their shares, the holders' contact details would be published on the Internet.

GSK rapidly secured a court injunction against the extremists, preventing them from making any further contact with shareholders or carrying out their threats of publishing the details. GSK CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier said, "We have become used to these offensive gestures, but this attack on our shareholders represents a new variation of intimidation and harassment....It also epitomizes the changing nature of the debate on animal research in this country."

Impending changes to UK law will limit access to individual shareholders' contact details. In addition, GSK has made it possible for shares to be moved into anonymous nominee accounts, while owners still retain all shareholder rights.

In a letter to the Financial Times, a number of institutional investors responded to the GSK matter, saying they would maintain their substantial shareholdings in GSK—and any others that carry out legitimate animal research. "There is no place for intimidation and violence," they wrote. "Opposition to a law should be played out in the appropriate venue rather than through the intimidation of the more vulnerable."