“Biomedical research using animals is a largely secretive process and the public knows little about what goes on in research labs.”
In my recent web meanderings, I stumbled across a site called AnimalTestInfo.
Apparently – I wasn’t aware of this, but maybe you were – in 2010 the EU issued one of its famous/infamous directives requiring every member state to publish open access summaries of animal research taking place in their country.
AnimalTestInfo is Germany’s response to that directive. It takes the form of an online repository for those research summaries. As yet I haven’t been able to discover if and how other member nations have responded to the directive with their own open access websites. Maybe you have? (If this all sounds very academic, dry and dusty, please bear with it a little longer – it could possibly be a matter of life and death to millions of animals.)
What is Open Access?
“Open access is about making the products of research freely accessible to all. It allows research to be disseminated quickly and widely, the research process to operate more efficiently, and increased use and understanding of research by business, government, charities and the wider public.” ¹
AnimalTestInfo’s emphasis is on the public. It describes its purpose as publishing “generally understandable, non-technical project summaries of approved animal experiments in Germany.”
That has to be a blessing, right?
No more concealment behind closed doors. Anyone and everyone can access the information and see which animals are involved, what is happening inside those formerly secretive labs. The hope has to be that with free and open access to animal testing information, the public will be moved to rethink their support for it, and start demanding alternative cruelty-free methods of research.
And the gains for the animals may not be confined to a hoped-for shift in public perception. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), which authorises the animal tests in the first place, has done a pilot study of the summaries researchers have uploaded to the AnimalTestInfo site. The study matched the test summaries against the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems – the ICD system. This gives the BfR “a fine-grained overview of the use of animal testing”, which they claim will be an aid in minimising the harm to the animals in accord with the 3Rs:
- Replacement – methods which avoid or replace the use of animals
- Reduction – methods which minimise the number of animals used per experiment
- Refinement – methods which minimise animal suffering and improve welfare
So that’s got to be good too. Hasn’t it?
Trouble is, national bodies that authorise the tests in the first place (like the BfR in Germany and the Home Office in the UK) are only too ready to trot out the 3Rs mantra – if you doubt my word, just write to your MP about animal testing and see what comes back. I’ll put on a white rat costume and lock myself in a cage in front of the Palace of Westminster on the day of 2018’s State Opening of Parliament if you get a response that doesn’t mention how hard the government is working to implement the 3Rs. (Maybe I should do that anyway.)
In reality do they pay the 3Rs anything more than lip service? Both in the UK and in the US the numbers of animals on which lab tests are performed continue to rise. And between 2011 – 2016 the rise in Germany was a huge 35%. So much for replacement and reduction.
The down side
AnimalTestInfo is of course in German, so maybe not that that easy for non-German speakers like me to navigate. It’s “Search” though clicks open to invite you to pick the particular lab animal you are interested in – and it’s a big and unhappy list:
Mice, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, Mongolian gerbils, other rodents, cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, other carnivores, horses, donkeys and crossbreeds, pigs, goats, sheep cows, lemurs, marmoset and tamarin monkeys, macaques, rhesus monkeys, meerkats, baboons, squirrel monkeys, other species of nonhuman primates, apes, other mammals, domestic fowl, other birds, reptiles, frogs, other amphibians, zebrafish, other fish, and cephalopods.
That’s the first shock.
The second is that German scientists have been adding their summaries to the site at the rate of 3,000 per year. That has to be 3,000 too many.
And the third lies in this statement: that BfR believes its analysis of the summaries on the website will reveal
“new insights about animal testing ….[which] could enable the public to easily pinpoint who might benefit from controversial studies involving non-human primates.”
In other words, the belief is that if the great German public can see that this or that animal test is conducted in the cause of finding cures for horrible conditions like cancer, stroke or heart disease, it will strengthen public support for what might otherwise be seen as abhorrent abuse of nonhuman primates. It will be accepted as a necessity that no reasonable person could deny.
And will simply offer up on a plate to scientists a publicly-sanctioned justification for their continued abuse of sentient animals in nightmarish research – animals who experience psychological trauma, and feel pain, fear and loneliness as much as we do – to get test results that in all likelihood will never be replicated in humans.
Only time will tell which way the open access scales will tilt for our nonhuman fellow animals. Will the blessing outweigh the curse? I’d like to think so, but somehow I doubt it.
On BBC iPlayer you can see the #ChimpSanctuary in Louisiana where more than 200 chimps used for medical testing in US labs have been retired to, and another 200 are due to arrive. Be warned though – there is horrifying undercover lab footage filmed by PETA, 33 minutes in.
But an absolute must-see (48 minutes into the program) is the first meeting of the female chimps with the males, who together will form a new family troop. Once they have bonded they will be released into a forested area of the sanctuary, to live out the rest of their lives in a way that is as near as possible to what would have been their natural life in the wild.
Disappointingly, in spite of the program revealing something of the trauma suffered by the chimps, and though the US National Institutes of Health have now drawn a line under the use of these primates, the assumption remains in the program’s narrative that it is ethically acceptable to use nonhuman animals in lab tests in the interest of improving human health. An assumption with which I cannot agree.