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UK courts are affirming the belief that medical research and drug development have made a huge contribution to people's quality of life, and that a small but vital part of that work involves the use of animals.
Pharmaceutical researchers in the UK are breathing a sigh of relief, as a new law aimed at curbing the illegal activities of animal rights activists starts to have an effect. Although it has yet to be tested in court, the new law, The Serious Organized Crime and Police Act, has already led to a number of arrests. The new law, which went into effect at the beginning of July, criminalizes campaigns that cause economic damage. It is now illegal to disrupt the business of an organization carrying out legal animal research—by such activities as blackmail, trespass, vandalism, and libel—whether directly or by targeting customers, families, or suppliers.
"The UK is now having fewer animal-rights activist attacks than elsewhere in the world because of the new legislation," said Philip Wright, head of science and technology at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). "In general, there has been a decline in attacks since the beginning of the year. This is partly a result of increased police focus and some severe prison sentences having been handed down."
The new law came too late for the Darley Oaks guinea-pig breeding farm in Staffordshire, however. The farm has been a major target for the extremists in the past six years, with the owners and their families, staff, and suppliers being subjected to a campaign of fire bombings, vandalism, intimidation, and death threats. The body of the late mother-in-law of one of the farm's owners was even dug up and stolen from the nearby churchyard, and has yet to be returned. The owners finally caved in to the pressure in late August, and announced that they would close the breeding farm and return to more traditional farming.
"The closure is bad, because it sends out negative messages," Wright said. "The campaign has gone on for a number of years, and the recent steps taken by the government have come too late for the owners." However, the UK government's Department of Trade and Industry says that closure of the farm will not disrupt the supply of laboratory animals.
By coincidence, the announcement of the impending closure came at the same time as more than 500 leading UK scientists and medics signed a Declaration on Animals in Research (available at www.rds-online.org). The declaration reaffirms the statement launched 15 years ago by ABPI, which said that medical research and drug development have made a huge contribution to people's quality of life, and that a small but vital part of that work involves the use of animals.
Coordinated by the Research Defense Society, the declaration includes statements about animal welfare, ethics, transparency, and regulation. It also states that, wherever possible, animal tests must be replaced by non-animal methods, and the numbers of animals used in testing should be reduced.
"It is as important now as it was then [in 1990, when the society last issued a declaration] to show that scientists and doctors are fully aware of the importance of animal research to science and medicine," said Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council and one of the signatories to the new law. "Of course animals must be cared for properly and never used unless absolutely necessary. This is how we do research, and it would be illegal to do it any other way."
The UK government is already funding work for the replacement of animals in drug testing. The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) was set up last year, with funding from government, two research councils, ABPI, and the Wellcome Trust, a UK medical-research charity organization. NC3Rs has already secured e3 million in funding to support medical, veterinary, and biological research projects.
While efforts are being made to reduce animal use, animal testing will remain essential for the foreseeable future, and protests are sure to continue in one form or another. The success of the new legislative regime in the UK now appears to be driving some of the protesters abroad.
"The attacks are increasing in Europe, with attacks happening recently in both Switzerland and the Netherlands," ABPI's Wright said. "The UK is well-positioned now to protect research and scientists, but we need the rest of Europe to catch up. A longer term target is to increase the amount done in the UK but decrease it globally—we have a good regulatory framework, good welfare practices, and a good science base, which promises well for the future."
Sarah Houlton, Ph D, is Pharmaceutical Executive's global correspondent. She can be reached at email@example.com