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Sarah Houlton, PhD, is Pharmaceutical Executive’s international correspondent.
Between January and June this year, 45 UK vendors capitulated to the activists and stopped supplying pharma companies.
The animal rights issue has killed more investment and science-based jobs than anything I can think of," said Jean-Pierre Garnier, GlaxoSmithKline's CEO, at the company's second-quarter results conference in July.
The issue is again at the forefront of the news agenda in the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, Cambridge University decided to cancel the construction of a primate research lab because of animal rights activists. Now those activists have shifted their attention to Oxford, where the university is planning an animal research center.
Although the main contractor, Montpellier, has pulled out of the project after being firebombed and having threats made to its shareholders, the university remains committed to completing the building. Animal experiments are necessary to understand the fundamental causes of diseases, and various tests have to be performed to satisfy the licensing authorities before the products are allowed onto the market. There is still no viable alternative.
Figures from the first half of this year throw the conflict into sharp focus. According to Philip Wright, science and technology director at the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), 45 vendors capitulated to the activists—stopped supplying pharma companies—between January and June. Around 110 directors and employees had their homes "visited" by activists, and 77 vehicles were attacked with paint stripper or had their tires slashed.
These shocking statistics have finally led the UK government to take action. But they have not gone as far as the pharma industry would like. Instead of introducing a specific all-embracing bill, the government only plans to plug some loopholes in the current law targeted at protesters, citing lack of parliamentary time as the reason for not putting forward a broader bill.
Several proposed measures should help, however. Protests outside homes that cause harassment will become an offense, and police will be able to deal with protesters after the event, rather than having to catch them red-handed. In addition, offenders will be banned from returning to the vicinity of the offense for three months. The government will also consider making it illegal to cause economic damage to suppliers of companies engaged in the legitimate, licensed use of animals.
The government's proposal document is a clear statement of intent.The foreword from Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary David Blunkett makes it plain that, while people have the right to campaign lawfully for an end to animal experimentation, "they do not have the right to harass, threaten, or physically attack those involved in lawful business and research." Indeed, the document states, "Animal rights extremists engaged in these activities should not be surprised to find themselves treated as terrorists." In other words, they could be subject to general antiterrorism laws.
The UK government has not ruled out further, specific legislation in the future. The industry hopes that if the proposed tightening of existing laws does not have the desired effect, more laws will be forthcoming. "We welcome the fact that the government has listened to our arguments for legislative change, and we are pleased that the door had not been closed on a single piece of legislation," said Aisling Burnand, chief executive of the Bio-Industry Association.
ABPI's director general, Trevor Jones, is also heartened that action is being taken. "The government has recognized that animal rights intimidation is now an issue of terrorism. Action has been needed for some time. We earnestly hope that the extensions of police powers will make a difference. But legislation is only part of the matter," he added. "We are pleased that the government recognizes that it is equally important for the police to coordinate their work nationally, to treat animal terrorism as an equal priority with other terrorist threats, and for the courts to punish accordingly."
The threats and sabotage have not only undermined pharma R&D, they have also resulted in a net loss of jobs. "It's difficult to quantify the impact the activists have had on the UK economy," ABPI's Wright says. "We have maintained investment in the UK, but there have definitely been missed opportunities because of the targeting, with Japanese and other companies being put off investing here. With the investment cycle taking two or three years, it's difficult to predict where it will go. But the activity is as bad as ever, and while the government has finally responded, they need to follow through with their proposals. We will have to wait and see what happens."