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Animal-research data show effects of EU’s tough regulations

The European Commission has published its first review of strict legislation designed to protect research animals.

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Research mice

More than 60% of the animals used for science across the European Union in 2017 were mice.Credit: Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald/Getty

The use of animals in scientific research seems to be declining in the European Union, according to statistics gathered by the European Commission. The figures come from the first report on the state of animal research in the bloc since the introduction of tougher regulations 7 years ago.

The report — published on 6 February — reviews the impact of an animal-research directive, legislation that was designed to reduce the use of animals in research and minimize their suffering. The directive, which came into effect in 2013, is widely considered to be one of the world’s toughest on animal research.

According to the report, 9.39 million animals were used for scientific purposes in 2017 — the most recent year for which data have been collated — compared with 9.59 million in 2015. From 2015 to 2016, however, there was a slight increase, to 9.82 million. The report acknowledges that this prevents the confirmation of a clear decrease. But it concludes that, when compared with figures from before the directive came into force, the numbers suggest “a clear positive development”.

In 2017, more than two-thirds of animals were used in basic or applied research (45% and 23%, respectively), and around one-quarter (23%) were involved in the testing of drugs and other chemicals to meet regulatory requirements. Other uses included the routine production of biological agents such as vaccines; teaching; and forensic investigations (see ‘Animals in science’).

More than 60% of the animals used in 2017 were mice, 12% were rats, 13% were fish and 6% were birds. Dogs, cats and non-human primates made up just 0.3% of the total.

Source: European Commission

The legislation sets out high standards for the housing and care of animals, and promotes testing methods that cause the least pain and use a minimal number of animals. It requires member states to submit detailed data on experimental animals.

“It is the broadest, most comprehensive approach to collecting and publishing animal statistics in the world,” says Stefan Treue, who heads the German Primate Center in Göttingen. He suggests it is a model that other countries could follow, although he notes that the complex reporting requirements put a high administrative burden on scientists and their organizations.

In addition to gathering data on the number and species of animals used in research, member states must now collect information on the number of times each animal is used, the purpose, and the ‘severity’ of experimental procedures animals experience.

A spokesperson for the European Commission says that such detailed data “allow us to identify far more effectively where best to target resources to help reduce the number and suffering of animals”.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00352-6

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