Why The Government Must Drop Animal Experiment Secrecy
Secrecy has long shrouded animal experiments from public view and scientific scrutiny. Last year, over 4 million animals were used in research in the UK including in cruel experiments involving poisoning, gassing and mutilation. Thanks to a special 'secrecy clause', we are expected to put blind faith in the scrutiny and regulation of animal experiments. But change could be on the horizon.
An EU Directive promoting openness and transparency in animal research has prompted the Government to review the Section 24 'secrecy clause' which prevents regulators from releasing details of what happens to animals during experiments under the Freedom of Information Act. The 'secrecy clause' has handicapped open public debate and wider scientific and ethical scrutiny of the use of animals in research, contributing to the considerable public mistrust of Government regulation of animal experiments.
Animal experiments are an issue of great public concern, underscored last week by the public outcry that prevented a Yorkshire facility from breeding beagle dogs for experiments. Removing Section 24 would go a long way towards providing public accountability, whilst allowing greater scientific scrutiny and drawing the UK into line with its own Freedom of Information Act, as well as the EU Directive.
Importantly, the review of Section 24 presents the opportunity to prevent needless animal suffering. NAVS is lobbying the Government to make animal experiments truly open and transparent by allowing anonymised Project License Applications (applications to perform animal experiments) to be made public before experiments are given the go-ahead.
It is currently impossible to ensure that the Government is fulfilling its legal requirement of not licensing animal experiments where non-animal alternative tests are available. Opening up Project License Applications would allow the public and concerned stakeholders to help prevent the duplication of experiments, ensure alternative tests are considered and allow the public to consider the costs and potential benefits of each experiment.
If the public were able to properly assess the cost to animals against the potential benefits, it is difficult to imagine how some animal experiments would pass public & scientific scrutiny. For example:
- University of Manchester: In experiments funded partly by European Research Council, The Royal Society and the Japanese Government to study "brightness discrimination", visually impaired mice were made to swim towards an escape platform. Other mice had electrical recordings taken from the eye region with a contact lens and a needle electrode, and electrodes into their brains. Incredibly, studies were carried out at the same time in humans without using these invasive techniques - so why were mice used in these traumatic experiments at all?
- St Georges, University of London: In experiments funded partly by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Wellcome Trust to compare immune responses in primates to those in humans, female monkeys aged 4-5 years old were anaesthetised and had an HIV protein and a gel inserted into their vaginas, nine times. Some animals underwent three "series" of this treatment. The monkeys were killed at the end of the study and their bodies analysed - the researchers describe "marrow washed from the bone". A study in human females was carried out at the same time.
- Government Defence Science and Technology laboratory, Porton Down: In experiments funded by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop a primate model of a lethal bacterial disease, twenty-two marmoset monkeys - who were selected partly due to their "low cost and availability" - had devices implanted in their bodies. They were later exposed to a bacterium which caused a deadly disease. Prior to being killed, the animals were subdued, breathless and hunched, with their hair standing on end. Primates are still being experimented on to study this disease after almost a century.
- University of Glasgow: In experiments funded by The Wellcome Trust to model a previous disease outbreak in humans, female hamsters were implanted with equipment, then given antibiotics and later infected with bacterial spores. Groups of animals were killed at different points. The internal effects of the bacteria included "'volcanic-like' eruptions" and "rapid and extensive damage". Similar experiments using hamsters have been carried out for many years.
Fortunately, there is broad support for the removal of Section 24, from the House of Lords Select Committee, Animal Procedures Committee, Home Office Ministers and a number of celebrities who have joined the NAVS to sign and deliver a letter on the issue to the Prime Minister.
The Government will soon open a public consultation on Section 24. Whether you believe in scientific inquiry, public accountability or animal welfare, we all have a stake in ensuring the removal of the animal experiment 'secrecy clause'. Please sign up for alerts for a reminder when the Government consultation opens, and see how you can help end secret suffering now.