Animal Research in the Year of Coronavirus

Statistics of live-animal research in Great Britain during 2020 have now been published by the Home Office. There was a total of 2,883,310 procedures, a fall of 15% from the previous year’s 3,401,517. So here too there was a Covid-boon for the animals; the notional 500,000 or so animals that might have been used in experiments, but weren’t, join the other groups of animals that found space, quiet, or simply survival as a consequence of the pandemic and associated lockdowns, because this relatively dramatic reduction to a level last seen in 2004 is candidly admitted by most of the practising institutions to be a freak of the moment. As Edinburgh University cautions on its web-site, “Please note . . . It is expected that these figures will increase in 2021 as more standard working patterns resume.” And anyway it may be that the 500,000 didn’t after all survive. It can’t be known, because numbers of animals killed without ever being used in procedures are only collected for one year in every five, and the next year to be counted will be 2022.

There is, at any rate, no reason for anyone to take credit for the reduction in numbers. In fact, rather ominously, there seems to have been no inclination to do so, or to celebrate it at all; rather, the pandemic has been seen by animal-research institutions as a boost to their confidence and reputation. The tone has been set by Understanding Animal Research (UAR), whose Chief Executive Wendy Jarrett says in her official statement,

Animal research has been essential to the development and safety testing of life-saving Covid-19 vaccines and treatments . . . The pandemic has led to increased public interest in the way vaccines and medicines are developed, and UAR has worked with research institutions and funding bodies throughout the UK to develop resources that explain to the public how animals have been used in this critical research.

UAR has indeed “worked with research institutions”, and it’s noticeable how prompt they’ve all been to declare their part in the 2020 numbers, and to use UAR’s publicity material to help them along. Even so self-sufficient an institution as Cambridge University (now exceeding Oxford University in animal numbers) presents its ‘Research news’ largely in UAR’s words and format, just adding a word or two from their own Establishment Licence Holder.

The Medical Research Council (third biggest user of animals in 2020, and financer of other users) has a special web-page providing “examples of how animal research is making an impact in the fight against Covid-19”. But the examples are being used to make a more general point, for we’re told that the expertise employed in this Covid research “is only possible because of the decades of knowledge gained from funding excellent discovery science, and the advances gained from research involving animals.” Both past and future of animal research are being justified by today’s “fight against Covid-19”, then. Indeed, taking an even more expansive advantage of the present situation, the MRC’s page makes this grand assertion: “Throughout history, research involving animals has been essential to our survival during epidemics and pandemics caused by infectious diseases.” Now we know why some people survived the Black Death. The case is complete.

Britflag

Another important point made by the MRC about this animal research is that it has “helped UK scientists lead the way in developing vaccines and treatments against Covid-19 [my italics].That’s certainly very gratifying, even if one hadn’t formerly pictured the research as an international competition. And no doubt it explains why UAR’s table summarizing the numbers is presented against an image of the Union Jack (though properly it should be the ‘British flag’, since Northern Ireland is not included in these numbers), with a strong red and blue colour-theme carried through in the layout. You see, it’s patriotic, it’s British, to experiment on animals.

In fact, for Understanding Animal Research there’s an exciting spirit of competition even within the nation. Alongside the more or less factual presentation of the 2020 statistics, we get a page headed ‘Ten organisations account for nearly half of all animal research in Great Britain in 2020’. This so-called “Top ten list” has become a traditional feature of its annual reporting, but now it’s being taken up by the individual institutions themselves. Glasgow University, for instance, re-publishes UAR’s table, proudly highlighting its own seventh position. Since all these institutions advertise (they’re required by UAR’s Concordat to advertise) their commitment to reducing the use of animals, the word ‘top’ seems incongruous, and the whole approach has always puzzled me. But then how can a list headed by the gigantic Francis Crick Institute (“Discovery without boundaries”), the University of Cambridge, and the MRC, be anything other than a variety of medal table? So it’s a PR device: these are the high achievers, and this is what they do, so it’s a good – indeed a glamorous – thing to be doing. And that advertised commitment to the 3Rs (reduction, etc.) comes across accordingly as a sort of modesty, taking the swagger out of the boastfulness: shucks, we try not to do this, but we just can’t help doing it brilliantly well.

Oxford University, coming fourth in this table, has not altered its animal-research pages for the occasion, except to edit the numbers themselves. However, a statement from its ‘Covid-19 vaccine team’ appears in UAR’s pages, explaining that the testing of its vaccine on rhesus macaque monkeys was done by Public Health England (at Porton Down) and the National Institutes of Health in the USA. This farming out of the tests partly explains Cambridge’s higher placing this year: that university used 41 non-human primates in 2020, compared to Oxford’s 15. Come on, Oxford!

So much for the publicity. As for the numbers themselves, it’s difficult to see any special pattern in them, aside from the temporary reduction, the Covid-dividend. As ever, the species most commonly used was the mouse, especially in procedures aimed at the production of genetically altered animals: altogether, over 2 million mice were used. These mice, with rats (notably more of these than last year), fish, and birds (mostly chickens), accounted for over 95% of all procedures. The number of horses continues to rise (to 10,790); they’re mainly used for blood products. The number of cats also went up, by 11% to 146; no explanation is given, but 62 of the cats were apparently wanted for regulatory testing (i.e. tests required by national or international safety regulations).

This latter class of procedure, forming about one third of all experiments, is the worst of them for cruelty, and not by chance the one least spoken of by research apologists. Whereas about 4% of the experimental procedures are classed as causing ‘severe’ pain or distress (it’s 2% for breeding procedures), for regulatory testing in particular the rate is 9%. Six of the cats fell into that category, and 11 into the ‘moderate’. Dogs of course were there in much greater numbers: 4340 of them were used in regulatory tests, of which 9 were classed as ‘severe’, and 1013 as ‘moderate’.

Neither dogs nor cats should have been there at all, in any category or any laboratory, but then nor should any of the other animals. The whole set of statistics is a record of selfishness and cowardice; in fact the re-iterated justifications for such research – that it’s essential for human health, and the necessary condition of all medical progress – even supposing them true, are just a less embarrassing way of saying that same thing.

Notes and references:

The animal research statistics for 2020 were published on 15 July. They can be viewed here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1002895/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2020.pdf   The tables of data are published separately, and the link to them can be found on this page, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-of-scientific-procedures-on-living-animals-great-britain-2020

The two presentations from Understanding Animal Research are here: https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/animal-research-numbers-2020/  and (with the ‘top ten list’) https://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/ten-organisations-account-for-nearly-half-of-all-animal-research-in-great-britain-in-2020/  The animal research pages of the ten institutions are linked here, but note that both Glasgow and the MRC seem to have thought better of the ones from which I have quoted, and as far as I can see they are no longer accessible.

There’s a good oppositional response to the annual statistics from Naturewatch, which also asks what happened to the good policy intentions published in 2014/15 (for which see this blog on 8 August 2020): https://mailchi.mp/naturewatch/breaking-news-how-many-animals-suffered-for-science-last-year-5097514?e=afb349bcaa Naturewatch also suggests actions to take, including e-mails to government ministers, with sample text offered here: https://action.naturewatch.org/call-time-animal-experiments

Counting, Culling, and Refraining from Bad Language

Oxford University has now published its animal research statistics for 2020. The total of experimental procedures was 169,511, a drop of 25% from 2019, and the lowest total since 2011. The only other institution to have published its 2020 numbers, King’s College London, records a similar reduction. Neither university has commented publicly on the matter, though you’d think it was dramatic enough to merit explanation. However, one may guess that this fall in animal numbers has been, not success in devising other ways of doing research, but the Covid effect, causing research projects to be postponed or cancelled. Whether the animals marked down for those projects are still waiting or have been destroyed for want of the staff to care for them is something the university has not volunteered, and indeed seems reluctant to divulge (I’ve asked).

The culling of lab animals in the USA, as a consequence of the pandemic, was commented on in the VERO blog for 8 April last year. There’s a bill now before the U.S. Congress which aims to protect animals in research laboratories and in other institutions (zoos, breeding farms, etc.) from “natural and man-made disasters”. Its short name is the PREPARED Act (Providing Responsible Emergency Plans for Animals at Risk of Emerging Disasters), and it would require all such establishments to make detailed contingency plans for the protection and re-homing of their animals. The drafting of this bill preceded the pandemic, but would very adequately have accommodated it, for Covid is of course both kinds of disaster, natural and man-made. However, the Act will have come too late for lab animals this time (itself having been delayed by the pandemic), and the traditional response to all mistakes and mishaps in laboratories – that is, killing the animals involved – has been used instead.

The PREPARED Act is one of a number of measures presently before Congress which are aimed at improving the lives of animals in the USA. One of the most impressive is the Farm System Reform Act, which would shift agriculture away from the huge factory farms (above a certain size would actually be prohibited by 2040), and towards smaller farms with pasture-based livestock or exclusively plant-food production. It’s a change which would, according to its sponsor, Senator Cory Booker, mend America’s “savagely broken food system” to the benefit of all the people and animals presently caught up in it.

If there’s a utopian hopefulness about the Farm System Reform Act (the more admirable for that), the Humane Research and Testing Act seems to have a more realistic chance of success. It proposes to establish a national centre for devising and promoting alternatives to animals in research, and this is a formalization of something that is supposed to be already happening under the finely named National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act 1993 (Section 404C). It also proposes a more inclusive count of the animals being used: all vertebrates – rather than, as at present, all except the vast majority of them (that is, the rodents, birds and fish). Every research institution receiving federal funds would be required to publish its count annually, together with a plan showing how it proposes to reduce the numbers in future.

Much of this would align the USA with practice in the UK, where such demands don’t seem to have lamed science in the way predicted by practitioners beforehand. But of course the Humane Research Act is being vigorously resisted, notably by the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), the organisation which many years ago successfully pushed for that exemption of rodents, birds and fish from the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act. In fact the NABR has been lobbying also against various animal-related measures in this year’s federal budget (the Fiscal Year 2021 Omnibus Appropriations Bill). These include the restoring to public view of records of inspections made by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) which were removed from its web-site in 2017; the mandatory recording by USDA of every instance of non-compliance with the Animal Welfare Act; and, with reference to the Food and Drug Administration, a direction to prefer non-animal testing wherever possible. Viewing these modestly animal-friendly measures, the NABR complains that “The House has filled their bills with bad language”. It’s an arresting phraseology to a British ear, but its meaning is clarified in the heading to their campaign in this case: “Remove Animals Rights Language from FY21 Approps Bills”.

The NABR’s own language is, of course, not “bad” in this sense at all. Like most such professional voices, it prefers inexplicit terminology: devitalized phrases like “animal models”; scarcely visible misrepresentations like “research with animals” (it’s a partnership, you see; in fact we’re told that medical discovery has been one of the most important results of “our partnership with dogs”); or just a helpful verbal fog, as in “the application of newly found knowledge is often proved feasible in non-human primate models”. The message is, ‘Move on; there’s nothing to see here.’

The NABR knows well that language is a hidden persuader. It would no doubt approve of the fashionable euphemism “depopulation” for another of Covid’s consequences, the mass culling of farm flocks and herds which have become untradeable or otherwise uneconomic as a result of the pandemic. Or there’s the term “focussed”, used by USDA for the inspections it makes of what it believes to be the more dependable research establishments: the word is suggestive of close and attentive scrutiny, a patently excellent thing, but it also means, without saying so, that something will be left out. In fact USDA is using the word exactly to mean exclusive. As an animal-law academic at Harvard has said, “An inspector could just look at a sampling of paperwork – and not a single animal.”

“paperwork – and not a single animal”: it could be the motto of the whole euphemism front in animal research. That phrase animal research is indeed the foundational instance, substituting a vague abstraction for the original and highly descriptive term vivisection. Practitioners have commonly argued that vivisection is inaccurate, since it includes the idea of cutting – i.e. some form of surgery – whereas much research using animals is non-invasive. It’s true that the word was coined in the eighteenth century, when nearly all such experimental work did indeed involve surgery, the exposure and study of organic functions by cutting. But just as atomic physics outran the etymology of its root word (a-tom meaning ‘not to be cut’), yet has remained untroubled by the contradiction, so might vivisection have done. Physiologists, however, understood the pictorial force of the word, and abandoned it early on for the opposition to use. It was no small part of the courage of Professor George Rolleston, giving his evidence to the Royal Commission in 1875 (as described in the post previous to this one), to declare that he would use the word inclusively and “not in its etymological sense” (neither the Commission nor the Act which followed it had the word in its title). He was effectively legitimizing the opposition case and advising his colleagues that they had a professional duty to answer it.

They didn’t, of course, follow his example, and the word is now used almost exclusively by outsiders to the profession, as a pejorative. Unused by scientists for so long, it has an antiquarian flavour much to the advantage of practitioners: a great weight of historical scandal and criticism was off-loaded and disclaimed when animal research became the accepted term. But vivisection survived and needs encouraging. It appears in the title of the valuable 1987 essay collection Vivisection in Historical Perspective (a reviewer from the Wellcome Institute called the title “unfortunate” and feared the word might deter his fellow-scientists from reading the book). I note its more recent use also throughout the text of a similarly impartial account of the subject provided at politics.co.uk. But if the word seems out-dated, then at least we can preserve its key element and speak wherever possible of live-animal research and of living animals.

But so much of the public material and even administrative machinery of this business has a euphemizing effect, whether or not by conscious purpose, that escaping the fog seems nearly impossible. We have seen, in the Vivotecnia scandal (discussed in this blog for 15 April), how the fine-sounding agencies supposed to supervise standards at that laboratory were in practice a covert for misconduct. Even the numbers such as this post started with, the annual parades of figures, with their hyper-accuracy asserting a candour which may or may not be really there, seem to daze more than inform. Perhaps they even habituate us to think of animals in the mass, and to forget the “single animal”.

rhesus at OU

I don’t know the solution to this, except in that authenticating phrase which Goya incised into one of his series of fearsome etchings called The Disasters of War: “Yo lo vi” (I saw this). What comes out of laboratories as having been witnessed and recorded in secret, as in the Vivotecnia case, is the only authentic information. Failing that, a strenuously critical reading of what’s officially provided is always and at least required.

Notes and references:

The photograph shows a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building of Oxford University (reproduced by permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office). Fifteen of these non-human primates were used and killed there in 2020, in the severity categories mild (1), moderate (10), and severe (4).

Oxford University’s 2020 statistics, including species of animal used and severity categories, are posted here (the surrounding text is unaltered from previous years): https://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview.

The text of the proposed PREPARED Act can be read here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1442/text. Senator Booker was interviewed by the Guardian newspaper about his farm reforms: see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/15/a-savagely-broken-food-system-cory-booker-wants-radical-reform-now

 The NABR is quoted from these two web-pages: https://www.nabr.org/take-action/fy21-approps-activism  and https://www.nabr.org/biomedical-research/importance-biomedical-research. The species excepted from the terms of the Animal Welfare Act do get some legal protections, as described here by another pro-research organisation: https://speakingofresearch.com/2016/05/23/when-are-rats-mice-birds-and-fish-protected-by-us-federal-laws/

USDA’s “focussed” inspections are reported (including the quotation) in Science, ‘USDA now only partially inspects some animal labs’, 7 May 2021, p.558.

The book Vivisection in Historical Perspective, ed. Nicholaas A.Rupke, is published by Croom Helm, 1987. The quoted review of it can be read here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1139874/pdf/medhist00063-0114.pdf. The politics.co.uk page on vivisection, a fair and readable account, is here: https://www.politics.co.uk/reference/vivisection/

The quoted evidence of George Rolleston, professor of physiology and anatomy at Oxford University, is recorded in Report of the Royal Commission on the Practice of Subjecting Live Animals to Experiments for Scientific Purposes, London, HMSO, 1876, p.62.

The photograph shows a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building of Oxford University (by permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office). Fifteen of these non-human primates were used and killed there in 2020, in the severity categories mild (1), moderate (10), and severe (4). 

Mus Homunculus in the USA

The variety of mouse commonly used in scientific research is Mus musculus, meaning ‘mouse (little mouse)’. A more accurate name would be Mus homunculus, ‘mouse (little man)’, since this has become the preferred model or manikin for almost every aspect of the human condition supposed capable of study in laboratories. The American journal Science, a peer-review publication which also reports on research published elsewhere, shows the mouse ceaselessly passing by in all its myriad human substitutions: to take this past month alone, Mus homunculusMouse in Bosch 'Garden' has been modelling fungal infections, cancers of all kinds, effects of gender on immune responses, Alzheimer’s disease, the role of glutamine in aging, neuro-developmental disorders, obesity, botulism, progeria, dengue fever, and even empathy (that well-known human virtue).

In the USA the numbers of mice being used in these ways cannot be known, since no systematic count is published or even kept. The Animal Welfare Act, which has supervised lab animals (among others) since 1966, amended its “definition of animal” in 2002 expressly to exclude “birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research”. Some external oversight of the management of these animals there is, when federal funds are involved in the research, or if the laboratory in question has volunteered to be on the lists of the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. This latter organisation may even count the rodents used in its accredited laboratories, but it keeps the numbers confidential, and they’re not collected into any national total. Nor is there any national record of the severity of experiments using the excepted animals.

Incidentally, one common method of counting the mice used at any particular laboratory, should a number be required, is to count the cages, and then to apply some sort of occupancy or turnover rate (for which there’s no generally agreed formula) in order to produce a yearly total. This hit-and-miss method pathetically reflects the existential flimsiness of the American mouse, defined by its transience.

That practitioners favour the present state of more or less ignorance is sufficiently evidenced by their National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), which vigorously lobbied for it when the 2002 amendment was under discussion, and which continues to defend it. Accordingly, there has been some surprise and indignation on their part at the publication this month of a paper, written by a former laboratory vet, that offers a reasoned estimate of the numbers they did in fact get through in 2017-18. The objections have been partly to the idea of advertising the numbers at all: a “narrow, decontextualized focus on counting animals”, says Speaking of Research, another advocacy grouping, “is a disservice to thoughtful consideration of animal welfare, science, and public health.” But the count itself has also been disputed (why is this somehow familiar?). Speaking of Research makes its own estimate, appropriately un-narrow: “11-23 million” (these are numbers for all animals, so deduct about 0.75 million to get at the excepted ones). That illustrates at least the level of uncertainty on the subject, since this is an organisation of professionals with easy access to whatever information there is. The NABR puts the number at “just under 15 million”, convincingly precise, but no evidence is provided to support it.

The author of the paper that has caused this controversy, Dr Larry Carbone, believes the true number to be very much greater. He has aimed at something more serious than what Americans call a ball-park figure, such as the others are evidently content with; he has worked it out and shown his working. Collecting his information from a sample of laboratories, either by direct questioning or by means of Freedom of Information requests, he has used it to establish a standard or at least common relation between the number of animals reported as required under the Animal Welfare Act, and the number of rodents used in the same places. For the sake of clarity, Carbone refers to the former as ‘animals’, in inverted commas, highlighting the absurdity of the AWA’s counter-scientific definition. The rats and mice, he calculates, have normally comprised about 99.3% of the total. The national figure for reportable ‘animals’ in 2017-18 was 780,070. Applying that percentage, he concludes that the number of rats and mice consumed in the USA’s laboratories in that year was 111.5 million.

Of this astonishing quantity of mice and rats, Carbone estimates that 44 million were used in “painful or distressful experiments”: that is, in experiments which the United States Department of Agriculture, responsible for administering the AWA, would put in its class D (“with pain, with drugs” or ‘WPWD’) or class E (“with pain, no drugs” or ‘WPND’). Classes D and E correspond more or less to ‘moderate’ and ‘severe’ in UK terminology. As you’ll notice, however, the USDA classification doesn’t assess the pain or distress itself; it treats that as a simple yes or no matter, and then classifies according to whether anaesthetics or analgesics have been used, something which may have to do with the animal’s pain but may also reflect the requirements of the experiment. It’s not a very informative arrangement.

And that’s the first good reason for regarding Carbone’s “focus on counting animals” as indeed a service to “thoughtful consideration of animal welfare”. This veterinary surgeon with years of experience in the research laboratory summarizes it thus:

Rodents’ capacity to experience significant pain and distress in experiments is no longer contested. With over 100 million of these sentient animals born per year for American science, it is time to revisit the adequacy of their welfare protections.

Another good reason is that a calculation like Dr Carbone’s will in time show whether the use of animals in American science is going up or down. He believes that although the direction for the AWA’s ‘animals’is gradually downwards, the rodent numbers are “likely increasing”. Of course the two areMouse image from space research closely connected. The special protections given by law to ‘animals’ make the unprotected species  commensurately attractive to researchers, as allowing a freer hand. For as the Animal Welfare Institute (based in Washington D.C.) says,

Basic standards for their housing and care are not overseen by USDA veterinary inspectors . . . There is no legal mandate to consider alternatives to the use of these animals, or to devise means to alleviate or reduce pain and distress.

But there has been no way of evidencing the increase in their use until now – or until next year, rather. And even if the 111 million number is inaccurate as charged (and let’s hope that, however carefully arrived at, it is indeed an over-estimate), any series of numbers arrived at by a standardized calculation in successive years should provide reliable comparisons.

They would show, for instance, whether the 3Rs principles, notionally accepted by the profession in the USA, are being taken seriously in practice. The NABR refers to them in a conveniently distancing way as a “philosophy” (like Creationism, perhaps, or Swedenborgianism), and at present is urging its membership to lobby against a proposal to establish a National Center for Alternatives to Animals in Research which would promote them. In fact this proposal is one part of a momentous reform bill presently before Congress (and objected to in toto by the NABR): the Humane Research and Testing Act. This most welcome and promising Act would, among other things, “require NIH [National Institutes of Health] to track and disclose all vertebrate animals used, including rats, mice, birds and fish . . . and demonstrate its progress [i.e. in reducing numbers] through bi-annual reports.”

Dr Carbone’s calculation comes, then, at an apt and critical moment. Perhaps laborious detective mathematics such as he has had to use in order to stir up attention to what’s happening in American laboratories will soon be unnecessary, and researchers will be taking proper public responsibility for all the animals – all the vertebrate animals, at least – which they use and destroy in their work.

Notes and references:

The amendment which in just a few words excised birds, rats and mice from the Animal Welfare Act can be seen here: https://www.nal.usda.gov/awic/public-law-107-171-farm-security-and-rural-investment-act-2002

I haven’t tried to cover all the different ways in which the work of a research laboratory in the USA may be overseen as to animal welfare and ethics. For instance, I haven’t mentioned the important Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, which all institutions that receive federal funds have to appoint, and which do roughly the work that Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Bodies do in the UK (though in a much more permissive environment, made notably more so during the years of the Trump administration).

Speaking of Research’s unfavourable review of Dr Carbone’s paper, including the quoted statement, can be read here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2021/01/12/factcheckneeded-how-are-mice-and-rats-accounted-for-in-the-balance-of-science-medicine-and-animal-welfare/. Its own estimate of numbers, as part of a comparative table of numbers in various countries, is offered here https://speakingofresearch.com/facts/animal-research-statistics/. NABR’s estimate is quoted in a New York Post article (described as a “best guess”, and I assume elicited by the journalist), dated 18 January 2021, here: https://nypost.com/2021/01/18/more-than-100-million-rats-mice-used-in-us-labs-report/

Dr Carbone’s paper ‘Estimating mouse and rat use in American laboratories by extrapolation from Animal Welfare Act-regulated species’ was published in the journal Scientific Reports, 12 January 2021: see  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-79961-0

 The Animal Welfare Institute is quoted from its good summary of the situation titled ‘Rats, Mice, and Birds’, here: https://awionline.org/content/rats-mice-birds

A brief account of the proposed Humane Research and Testing Act can be read here: https://www.caareusa.org/humane_research_and_testing_act_of_2020_introduced

The first illustration is a detail from the late 15th century painting by Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, in the collection of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The roundel illustration shows the ‘mission patch’ for Rodent Research-IV, one of many research projects using rodents on the International Space Station. It’s aimed at understanding the effects of prolonged space flight on health, and more largely the processes of aging.

Counting the Cost Again: the 2019 Numbers

The numbers for UK animal-research procedures completed during 2019 have now been published by the Home Office. The total was a little over 3.4 million, a fall of 3% on the previous year. That means that there has been a modest decline in the total every year since 2015, tending to correct the brisk upward tendency which began after the year 2001, when the number was 2.62 million. We’re now back at any rate to pre-2010 levels. In fact, 2019’s total is, as the Home Office text says, “the lowest number of procedures since 2007”.

Back in 2001, that 2.62 million number was the lowest total since the 1986 Act had been passed, the lowest in fact since the mid-1950s. The notable fact was modestly presented in that year’s report as the first of fourteen ‘main points’ in ordinary black type, after eleven pages of general introductory matter. By contrast, this year’s achievement appears in a special box of ‘key results’ on page one, a three-colour affair enriched with graphics of various kinds, the numbers being set in eye-catching 36 point type. Why not? It makes navigation of the essential information that much easier. But of course it also quite changes the reading experience. The feeling you get is that the Home Office, rather than merely allowing you to know all this, as in earlier days, actually wants you to know: wants you to know that the numbers have gone down, certainly, but also, it seems, that 57% of the procedures were made for the purpose of ‘basic research’ – not obviously a point to boast about, but getting the same vibrant treatment in that text-box. The remainder of the report is laid out in a similarly easy-read style.

No doubt it’s partly the ‘Concordat effect’ that we’re seeing, and have been seeing gradually over the last few years of these government reports: the fashion, that is, for a more bullish PR, which celebrates rather than apologises for animal research, cleverly extolling at the same time both its claimed great achievements and the promise to do as little of it as possible. It’s also, I suspect, a response to the two-yearly Ipsos Mori surveys of attitudes to animal research (the next one is or was due this year: see notes below for previous ones). These surveys habitually find that respondents consider themselves ill-informed about animal research and regard the institutions that practice or supervise it as secretive and untrustworthy. “Come See Our World!” is how the promotional organisation Americans for Medical Progress title their digital introduction to the wonders of animal research. It’s a slogan which the Home Office now seems to have adopted too.

Here, anyway, are a few points about that world, as it was in 2019.

Regulatory testing:

This is probably the most unsavoury class of procedure, conducted to satisfy national or international laws of one kind or another. It continues to make up about one quarter of all the experimental (as opposed to GA animal-breeding) work. It’s the industrial end of animal research, involving the mass through-put of animals in standard testing regimes. The products and devices being tested include medical therapies, but also pesticides and other lethal products, and the techniques used for testing them still include, astonishingly, the ruthless LD50 AND LC50 tests. Accordingly this category of research is consistently the worst for animal suffering. In other experimental work, about 4% of the procedures are usually counted as ‘severe’; in 2019, the rate for regulatory testing was 10.8%. We are told (on page 14) that ‘severe’ procedures are those which cause “a major departure from the animal’s usual state of health and well-being”. Since all sixteen of the “eye irritation/corrosion” procedures conducted on rabbits in 2019 were classified as ‘mild’, and there is an intermediate category ‘moderate’, we can form some idea of how major that departure has to be.

Moreover, it’s in regulatory testing that the largest numbers of specially protected animal species appear (“animal species appear”! you see how numbers and tables push the mind towards abstractions): for instance, 3002 dogs (85% of the year’s total) and 2426 monkeys (71% of the total). Not that mice aren’t the most numerous species here as elsewhere: 437,124 of them were used in 2019.

Protection of the natural environment:

Most classes of animal research have shared to a greater or lesser degree in the reduction of numbers last year; even the breeding of GA animals, which has been mainly responsible for the increase since 2001, shrank by that same 3%. One class which noticeably did not shrink was ‘Protection of the natural environment’. This accounted for 13,074 animals in 2018, but for 29,343 in 2019. The animals included 5821 horses and “other ungulates”, 898 birds, and 22,079 fishes. It’s a category of research distinct (at least for statistical purposes) from regulatory testing and from general toxicology. The primary purpose is to understand the health implications of pollutants in the environment, but a common associated aim is the conservation of species and ecosystems: looking after animals, then!

An article about this sort of research, published in the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms earlier this year, conceded that epidemiology, the comparative study of whole populations, “can provide strong statistical inference linking chemical exposure to disease.” But that’s not enough; to understand the ‘mechanism’ of the harm being done, it has to be animal research. In fact the article is titled ‘Casting a wide net: use of diverse model organisms to advance toxicology’. You’ll notice the ambivalence of that last word: what’s to be advanced is both our understanding of poisons, and the scientific discipline called toxicology. This latter aim is the real subject of the article, whose authors wish “to shift the perception of toxicology as an applied science to that of a basic science” and thereby to “enrich the field”. This, they believe, can best be done by relying less on mice and rats, and resolving instead to “utilize diverse model systems”, especially fish (so “casting a wide net” turns out to be a sort of pun; don’t forget that science can be fun!). After all, they say, “The tree of life is vast”; why confine ourselves to “a few distinct branches”?

It’s a classic instance of scientistic thinking: calling in big science to fix the effects, while leaving the causes untouched. (We see it happening also in the case of Covid-19.) More to the point here, the article reminds us that there are always strong professional interests bound up in the growth (and resistant to the contraction) of any branch of scientific research, including those that use animals. That jump to 29,343 will have been good for some.

Roadmaps to nowhere:

Yet in fact both these classes of animal research, regulatory testing and protection of the environment, as well as toxicology more generally, should be especially amenable to non-animal technologies. That was indeed the main aim of a project set up in 2015 with the publication of a document entitled A non-animal technologies roadmap for the UK: advancing predictive biology. It was a collaboration between various government-sponsored agencies (including the National Centre for the 3Rs), academia, and industry, whose purpose was to promote the development and marketing of ‘NATs’ (surely a good sign that it seemed worth abbreviating ‘non-animal technologies’). The thinking was frankly commercial (further evidence of real purposefulness, sad to say): “The market potential is huge”, said the ‘Executive summary’. Correspondingly, the stated objections to animal testing were pragmatic, not ethical: its failure to predict for humans had “far-reaching implications, from wasted resources . . . to large financial losses”. As the trendy word ‘roadmap’ implies, this was a programme for the future rather than a survey; it was described in business-speak as “stretching towards a 2030 vision”.

Since we’re a third of the way along that road now, you’d expect the toxicology numbers to be showing some effect; you’d at least expect them not to have grown. But then I can find no surviving trace of the NATs project among all the other ‘roadmap’ projects boosting themselves online. What’s happened to it? The NC3Rs makes the document available on its web-site, but seems to have said nothing further about it since the day of publication. Another of the collaborating agencies, the Medical Research Council, makes no mention of it at all. More eloquently, the Medical Research Council’s laboratories were second only to the huge Francis Crick Institute as users of animals in research in 2019 (Oxford University came third).

That abandoned roadmap was part of an official programme of reform devised during the period of the Coalition government in the UK – largely the effect of having, however briefly, a minister in charge of animals in science who really wished to get them out: Norman Baker. Two other substantial publications had set out the aims of the programme and the progress being made: in 2014 there was Working to reduce the use of animals in research, and this was followed a year later, as promised in its text, by a review of progress titled Delivery Report. In fact the promise had been to publish such reviews “regularly thereafter”. But no others have appeared.

The number of animals used in 2015 was 4.14 million, the largest number since the 1986 act came into force. There’s been a 17% reduction since that high point – a return, as mentioned, to 2007 levels. Perhaps we must regard that much progress as the finished legacy of the Coalition programme, and now we’re left again with optimistic reassurances and pious references to the 3Rs. God knows there was nothing radical about that programme, but it had serious intention. To have let it lapse is a shameful delinquency.

 

Notes and references:

The report for 2019 and the separate tables of numbers can be accessed from this page: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-of-scientific-procedures-on-living-animals-great-britain-2019 .

The Ipsos Mori surveys for 2016 and 2018 are reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/animal-pains-and-human-attitudes-the-new-ipsos-mori-survey/

https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/the-magic-sound-of-figures/

The Americans for Medical Progress digital tour of animal research was briefly reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/come-see-our-worlds/

Among the various responses to the statistics, the one from Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments is especially authoritative. It talks about the Coalition publications, which were also touched on in this blog when Norman Baker was the subject, here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/vero-invites-the-greatest-man-in-politics-to-speak-in-oxford/

The article ‘Casting a wide net: use of diverse model organisms to advance toxicology’ was published in April of this year, and can be read here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7132827/

These are the three Coalition documents discussed above:

Working to reduce the use of animals in research (2014: quoted above from p.9): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/working-to-reduce-the-use-of-animals-in-research-delivery-plan

Working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research: Delivery Report (2015): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/417441/Delivery_Report_2015.pdf

A non-animal technologies roadmap for the UK: advancing predictive biology (2015: quoted at pp. 4 & 6): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474558/Roadmap_NonAnimalTech_final_09Nov2015.pdf

Where Oxford’s At: News from the Forefront

Oxford University has posted its animal research statistics for 2019, showing a total of 229,163 ‘procedures’. Most of these animals were mice (222,206), but there were also rats, ferrets, fish, guinea pigs, junglefowl (7 of these), and non-human primates (8). This 2019 total shows a rise of 4% over last year’s, and is the second highest at Oxford in the period since numbers became available in 2007. The highest was recorded in 2017 (236,429). Some UK universities that use animals in research have not yet posted their equivalent numbers, but Oxford will certainly head the list for quantity, with Edinburgh (198,517) probably second, and University College London (186,424) third.

As to the PSDLH (it’s a new Home Office abbreviation for “pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm”), only about 0.5% of the procedures at Oxford came into the ‘severe’ category. However, three out of the eight monkeys did. That comes as something of a surprise, since a paragraph on this same page headed ‘What is done to primates?’ gives a quite attractive account of their admittedly brief lives. Many of them apparently find the OU primatecomputer games which test their learning and memory powers “stimulating”. After surgery to remove “a very small amount of brain tissue”, the monkeys are “up and about again within hours” – a nice suggestion of bustle and purpose. The brain damage itself is “minor and unnoticeable in normal behaviour”. And so on. The photograph which is used to illustrate this tonic account (as reproduced here) seems likewise to discredit it, but perhaps the image is intended to represent active curiosity rather than despondency.

In previous years, the VERO blog has presented in tabular form much of the year’s statistical information, but there seems little point to that (a link to the page is provided in the notes below). These tables of numbers are always subtly misleading, since the larger numbers seem actually to depreciate the lives being counted: the seven chickens are more conceivable than the hundreds of thousands of mice. Then the numbers are misleading also in the appearance they give of dealing with an intelligible and consistent unit, the ‘procedure’. To some extent the university’s account gets round this problem by making clear that the number of procedures in 2019 was exactly the same as the number of animals: so animals are the real unit, and of course we know what they are. The fact remains that although a procedure may be something as slight as an injection, a point habitually made in animal research PR, it may also be a whole course of injections, yet still count as one unit. Oxford’s vaccine trials, for instance, take blood monthly from rhesus macaque monkeys. And of course there are procedures very much more gruelling than an injection. Counting by animals does nothing to clarify the haze over what really happens.

The severity categories do provide some guidance, since the Home Office requires that judgements as to category must “relate to both the duration and intensity of pain, suffering or distress.” Thus “prolonged suffering at a mild level should be considered [i.e. classified as] moderate, and prolonged suffering at moderate should be considered severe”, unless there is adequate time for recovery “between procedures”, or even for “habituation” on the part of the animal. The Home Office does, you see, grapple with this problem, but note the plural ‘procedures’, referring as it does to the experience of one animal and therefore to one countable procedure. So much for the procedure as a unit. It’s not a unit; it’s an undeclared collective.

The Oxford University numbers, then, are only modestly informative. Moreover, they necessarily leave uncounted the animal research which is implied in the university’s work but is done at other institutions, perhaps by private UK companies, or perhaps – science being an international collaborative enterprise – at laboratories elsewhere in the world. See, for instance, the university’s recent research on Covid-19. A New York Times news story about that research on 27 April, under the characteristically excitable heading ‘In Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine, an Oxford Group Leaps Ahead’, told how a vaccine prepared at Oxford was being tested at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory in Montana, an establishment belonging to America’s National Institutes of Health. Scientists there, the New York Times said,

inoculated six rhesus macaque monkeys with single doses of the Oxford vaccine. The animals were then exposed to heavy quantities of the virus that is causing the pandemic – exposure that had consistently sickened other monkeys in the lab. But more than 28 days later, all six were healthy, said Vincent Munster [no relation], the researcher who conducted the test.

You’ll notice that this one brief testing project used at least as many monkeys as Oxford University have declared for the whole of 2019, and under a much laxer ethical regime. Whether Oxford actually requested this research or even repudiated it is not stated; either way it will have formed part of the research history of the vaccine.

Oxford’s own numbers haven’t changed much over the last five years – a few percentage up or down each year, with no discernible direction of travel. Contrary to the university’s assurances at the time, the new Biomedical Sciences Building did boost animal research after 2008, and was no doubt intended to, but now the numbers seem to have steadied. But of course there’s nothing stationary in Oxford’s science scene otherwise. Two very recent news stories illustrate the point.

Just last month the university announced a gift of funds from the firm Bulgari, purveyor of “perfumes that exude elegance” and other necessaries to the exceedingly rich. This money will fund two research positions and some scientific equipment, all related to the study and creation of vaccines. Another donation very recently announced was £80 million from the Reuben Foundation, which will support the founding of a whole new graduate college. It will be called Reuben College and will specialize in the sciences, including artificial intelligence.

These two windfalls are just the newsworthier moments in a general story of constant enlargement of science at Oxford, whose cityscape is characterized as much  by cranes as by spires these days, neither of them doing much dreaming. It means – to take the good news first – that animal research at Oxford is, proportionately, diminishing. Diminishing at present, that is: because – the more ominous implication – this boom in science might easily (would certainly, if controls and opposition were relaxed) come back round to animal research.

At the moment most of Oxford’s science news is naturally enough about Covid-19, and we’re told in the web-pages dedicated to it that “Researchers across the University are at the forefront of global efforts to understand the coronavirus”. These ‘Coronavirus Research’ pages include, somewhat incongruously, an interview with a professor of English, perhaps mainly to justify that phrase “across the University” (with its pleasant echo of a Beatles song). The piece is titled ‘Catastrophe, not war stories: how the Covid-19 crisis will be written?’ It’s good to see the humanities playing their part in keeping Oxford at the forefront of global efforts but, not surprisingly, the professor couldn’t really say what sort of fiction will be written about the pandemic, or indeed anything else very enlightening. She did suggest that, using war stories as our model, we should expect a “lag” before any such fiction appeared. Not too much of a lag, let’s hope, or the Covid pandemic may have been superseded, if there’s truth in a news story from China a week ago:

A new flu virus found in Chinese pigs has become more infectious to humans and needs to be watched closely in case it becomes a potential ‘pandemic virus’ . . . although experts said there is no imminent threat.

Well, well! Perhaps the university should send its experimental psychologists to that Covid forefront, and set them to understanding, not coronavirus itself, but this strange refusal of the species Homo sapiens to live up to the name it chose for itself.

 

Notes and references:

The main page for information about animal research at Oxford University, from which the above numbers and quotations are taken, is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

The quoted Home Office guidance on severity categories appears in ‘Advisory notes’ published on 1 January 2014, and can be accessed here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/276014/NotesActualSeverityReporting.pdf

The New York Times report is online here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/world/europe/coronavirus-vaccine-update-oxford.html

For its brand-name, Bulgari uses a spelling which only makes sense in Roman capitals, Bvlgari, a pretentious device which the university’s press release religiously follows. The quotation is from Bulgari’s web-site, of course.

The news of Oxford’s work on Covid-19, including the quoted interview, is featured online here: https://www.research.ox.ac.uk/Area/coronavirus-research

The quotation about a new flu virus comes from France 24’s online news serve here: https://www.france24.com/en/20200630-chinese-researchers-warn-of-new-flu-virus-in-pigs-with-human-pandemic-risk

The 2018 numbers at Oxford University were reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/oxfords-annual-numbers-with-added-mistakes/

The photograph of a rhesus macaque monkey in the Biomedical Sciences Building is reproduced with permission of the university’s Public Affairs Office.

Counting the Animals again

The Home Office has now published its Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain for 2018. Here is VERO’s selective summary of the numbers and species, alongside those of 2017 (which seem to have been slightly revised since they were published last year), with some comments to follow:

 Species  Number used in 2018  Number used in 2017
 Mice   2,568,197    2,781,685
 Fish   454,340    514,059
 Rats   177,904    241,544
 Domestic fowl   141,069    125,280
 Sheep    53,672    47,499
 Guinea Pigs    6,445    22,560
 Horses    10,424    10,600
 Rabbits    11,159    10,362
 Dogs    4,481     3,847
 Non-human primates    3,127     2,962
 Other species    89,099     28,975
 Total:   3,519,917   3,789,373

Direction of travel: You may notice that there has been a fall of about 7% in the numbers since last year. You certainly will notice it if you read the Home Office report itself, since the point is made twice in the first four pages, as is also the fact that this is the lowest number since 2007 (a fact highlighted in attractive purple each time). There has been a fall in each of the last three years, so perhaps it is now possible to detect a real and very welcome downwards trend after years of more or less steady increase. Still, there is a long way to go (to go back), for even this 2018 number is about 34% greater than the number recorded in 2001.

Particular species: There has been a fall in numbers for most species, but you’ll see that two of those which have special protection under the 1986 Act have not enjoyed a share in it: dogs and non-human primates. The sad thing is that these animals are mainly used in so-called ‘regulatory testing’, the most patently unpleasant category of research, and one which has always had the worst severity ratings: this year, 12.5% of the procedures were classified as ‘severe’ (i.e. the top pain rating), compared to about 2% of the procedures for ‘basic’ research. Dogs (which mercifully don’t appear in the ‘severe’ category this year) and primates are used primarily for the testing of human and veterinary ‘medical products’, by the method called ‘repeated dose toxicity’. Other animals in this category of research may be required to test industrial chemicals, biocides, animal feeds (this, we’re told, is “for the safety of target animals, workers and environment”, so God knows what these feeds contain), and an unspecified ‘other’, in which again both dogs and primates feature.

The testing methods used on the less-protected animals still include the notorious LD50 and LC50 tests, as well as unspecified ‘other lethal methods’. That word ‘other’ acquires a sinister character in these records, but “other lethal” is an illogical category anyway, since all or nearly all this laboriously counted work is lethal in the not-so-long run for the animals, even when they are not killed by the product itself.

The 10,000 or so procedures on horses recorded in this Home Office report (up 19% since 2009) appear likewise mainly in this ‘regulatory’ category, although in fact the horses are being used not for testing but for the routine production of blood derivatives. You can see some of the uses to which this blood is put being advertised on the web-site of TCS Biosciences (“your partner: For Life”). In the USA, these uses include the keeping of farmed sows regularly in heat, by means of ‘Pregnant Mare Serum Gonadotropin’. I mention this as one stray and disgusting instance of the way that animal research serves and therefore promotes high-tech animal farming. Scientists often compare the animal costs of their work favourably with the suffering and death-rate in agriculture; it’s a defence they have been using ever since they discovered that vivisection required defending. But the distinction is altogether disingenuous: farming as now practised would not have been possible, let alone profitable, without the steady support of laboratory science.

Democracy at work, or not: The 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act requires the Home Office to “publish and lay before Parliament” these annual statistics in order that the people, acting through their representatives, can knowingly assent to them. In practice this assent is assumed rather than annually petitioned for. Some challenges there are, of course. ‘Early Day Motions’ may be tabled, in which MPs express their dissent: at present there is one such (EDM 66), signed by 63 MPs and calling for “a thorough, properly moderated public scientific debate on the misleading and costly practice of trying to apply results from animal experiments to human patients.” Or questions may be put to ministers; for instance, on 3 September 2018, the excellent (and vegan) MP Kerry McCarthy asked about the increased use of horses for blood collection, as mentioned above. Much more rarely there are dedicated debates, the most recent of them on 5 February 2013, held in Westminster Hall and simply titled ‘Animal Experiments’.

But the lack of a proper departmental home and a dedicated minister for all animal subjects means that no great momentum is ever created out of these haphazard initiatives. Animal research alone is dealt with in fragments by at least three major departments: the Home Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department of Health and Social Care. It’s a situation tragi-comically reflected in the name of the Home Office agency responsible for putting out these annual statistics: the Fire, Licensing and Public Order Analysis Unit.

In the absence of sustained parliamentary fuss, these statistics and the exploitation of animals which they dimly shadow have come to seem like a sort of natural or at least sociological phenomenon, rather than a deliberate moral choice. The Home Office report itself sets the style for that way of viewing them. Surveying the variations in numbers over the years since 1987, it provides this helpful explanation: “The number of procedures carried out on living animals is determined by several factors, including the focus of scientific and medical endeavours, the economic climate and global trends in new technologies or fields of research.” No one’s really in charge, then; we’re all just bystanders. And it then becomes reasonable to take the view noted in this blog when last year’s statistics were published: that is, that big numbers are actually an indication that all’s well in UK life-science research – or, as one promotional organisation has said this time round, “Year-to-year numbers are thus best seen as a reflection of the current health of UK bioscience investment and will fluctuate year-on-year.”

Fluctuate! We’re a very long way here not just from the pains of the animals whom these statistics are nominally about, but also from the moral purpose clearly though imperfectly put into political effect in the 1986 Act and the 2010 European Directive. For them, downward was the desired and proper direction, not an accident of economics.

Well, it’s true that counting animals is not the essence of animal rights, but falling numbers are emphatically better than rising numbers, and if the present trend in that direction is to be kept going we need to remind our political representatives (even at this least propitious of political times) to keep the subject controversial. Many MPs really do mind about animals, and even more of them know that their constituents do. To illustrate as much, here is an MP speaking about animal research back in 1971, at the high point of vivisection numbers in the UK, just preceding the long fall towards 2001: “I know that the object is to preserve human life; but it does make me wonder whether a human race that can take such morally degrading practices in its stride is really worth preserving.”  OU primate

Yes, that’s the proper context in which to view and debate these annual statistics.

 

 

 

Notes and references:

The Annual Statistics can be found here (the quotation comes from p.5): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/818578/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2018.pdf

The tables of data are now published separately, and are linked here: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/statistics-of-scientific-procedures-on-living-animals-great-britain-2018

Information about the farming of horses for blood comes from this web-site: https://www.thedodo.com/turning-horse-blood-into-profits-1382177497.html

A transcript of the Westminster Hall debate can be read here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2013-02-05/debates/13020535000001/AnimalExperiments

The parliamentary briefing document, titled Animal Experiment Statistics, was published on 25 April: a summary of it is available here, with a link to the full pdf version provided at the end: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN02720#fullreport

The quotation about “year-to-year numbers” is from the Speaking of Research web-site here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2019/07/22/great-britain-releases-2018-statistics-on-animals-used-in-research/

Unfortunately I don’t know who the last-mentioned MP was: he or she is quoted without name or reference by Desmond Morris in his book Intimate Behaviour (Jonathan Cape, 1971), p.183.

The photograph of a rhesus macaque monkey in Oxford University’s Biomedical Sciences Building, probably himself long since an annual statistic, is used by courtesy of the university’s Public Affairs Office.

 

Oxford’s Annual Numbers, with Added Mistakes

The statistics for Oxford University’s animal research in 2018 have now been made public on the University’s web-site. Here is VERO’s summary, showing the numbers for each species (with 2017 for comparison), and then the severity of the ‘procedures’ involved. A few comments follow the two tables.

Total number of experimental procedures, by species:

 Species  Number in 2017  Number in 2018
 Mice      229,640        208,057
 Fishes          3,852            8002
 Rats          2,599           2,913
 Junglefowl               21              291
 Frogs            155                89
 Guinea Pigs              80                81
 Badgers              39                64
 Pigs                5                20
 Ferrets              29                24
 Non-Human Primates                7                10
 Rabbits                2                  0
 Total:     236,429       219,551

 

Severity of procedures (for those species where moderate or above was recorded):

Species  Severe  Moderate  Mild  Sub-threshold  Non-recovery
 Mice   1,889    35,903   49,730       117,743       2,792
 Fishes      298      1,236    5,127           1,211          130
 Rats        37         622       427           1,150          677
 Ferrets          0             9         0                  0            15
Non-Human Primates          0             9         1                  0              0

 

The total number: 219,551 represents a fall of just over 7% on last year’s total. This is welcome, of course, but unfortunately it can’t be taken as part of a trend. Last year’s number had shown a rise of 8.5% on 2016. Like the value of investments (and one might pursue other similarities), these numbers may go down as well as up, but the clear trend since the completion of the new laboratory has been upward. The number for 2007, which was the last complete year before the laboratory opened for business, was 155,901.

Animals killed without experiments: No number has yet been published for these animals in 2018. Perhaps it won’t ever be given, since a number was provided for 2017 last year, and for some reason the law only requires such animals to be counted in every fifth year. But it’s a very important number, and ought always to be included in the returns. That’s partly because the number is to some extent an index to the efficiency of a laboratory, unpleasant as that word ‘efficiency’ is in this context. But also, the need to do and publish this count is a helpful corrective to the assumption, which the 1986 Act otherwise makes and therefore encourages, that killing an animal is not in itself a significant wrong. That assumption has been frequently noticed in other parts of this blog. It’s not one we humans make for ourselves; I can’t think of any sound reason for making it in the case of other animals.

Science or PR: Last year’s commentary in this blog on the annual Oxford numbers included a critical appreciation of the University’s animal-research web-pages, or at least of the main page, which is titled ‘Research Using Animals: an Overview’. Very little on that page has changed since then, except the just-published numbers. However, the sentence which introduces numbers is new, and here it is:

Figures for 2018 show numbers of animals ‘on procedure’, as declared to the Home Office using their five categories for the severity of the procedure.

This short and functional statement manages to fit in two plain errors. The first error is to speak of numbers of animals rather than numbers of ‘procedures’. The statistics submitted to the Home Office, or separately published as here, are always a count-up of procedures and not of animals. True, this makes very little difference in practice (although the two numbers can differ if, for instance, an animal is re-used in a new research project); it may therefore seem a pedantic distinction, especially since neither way of counting really tells us very much, as this blog has often enough shown. But the point is that nobody who has had anything to do with conducting or reporting the research would make such a mistake. When Cruelty Free International rather carelessly made a similar mistake a few years back, Speaking of Research (a scientists’ pressure-group promoting animal research) called it “a rookie mistake for an organisation which claims to be an authority on the issue”. Oxford University surely is an authority on its own research. How then does it let through a mistake like this?

The second error shows a similar confusion. The animals in the count are said to be “on procedure”, a professional-sounding term perhaps borrowed from lower down on the ‘Overview’ page where it refers to non-human primates undergoing brain research. But the term means ‘research unfinished’, whereas the annual count is precisely of completed research. It used once to be a count of proposed and accepted procedures (the change, a sensible one, came in 2014), but it was never a count of procedures under way at time of counting.

Again, it may not seem to matter much, though in this case it would be a very awkward way of doing things. But the confusion in both cases makes clear that these annual numbers are being introduced by someone who knows only the jargon of the subject, and also that nobody with better knowledge is being asked to check what’s written, or cares to do so on their own initiative. In short, it’s simply a PR job, and not a very good one.

Last year’s commentary showed that the whole ‘Overview’ text evidences the same sort of amateur authorship. Presumably we can treat the annual numbers themselves as reliable, but there’s no reason to accept as true or authoritative anything else said on the animal research web-pages. This isn’t university science speaking (or even bothering to have read). We needn’t spend any more time on it ourselves, then.

 

Notes and references:

Oxford University’s main animal-research web-page, including the annual numbers, is this one: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

Last year’s Oxford numbers were reviewed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/a-record-breaking-years-work-in-the-lab/   See also https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

The comment made by Speaking of Research appeared as part of a rather bumptious but not inaccurate critique of Cruelty Free International’s own publicity. It was posted in April 2017, and can be read here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2017/04/11/disappointing-lack-of-context-by-cruelty-free-international-as-worst-press-release-on-animal-testing-numbers-is-revealed/

Your Christmas Reading Done for You

By way of confirmation that Christmas approaches, the facebook page of Understanding Animal Research (UAR) is counting down the days with a festive sequence based on ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’: “On the nth day of Christmas researchers sent to me …” It’s true that the well-worn carol really refers to the days after the 25th, but this is light-hearted entertainment after all, and it helps to show that animal research can be fun – or promoting it can be, anyway! So with much jingling and stardust, a rat in a lab coat stands by a Christmas tree and gratefully receives such amusingly pertinent things as “approval by ethics committee” (the “partridge in a pear tree” equivalent) or “six knockout mice”.

Tearing oneself away from this merriment, there are more straight-faced things happening in the profession at this time of year. There’s the annual awards ceremony associated with UAR’s Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, and although that’s a sort of school prize-day that interests only the school itself, the Concordat’s annual report is published to coincide with it, and this document genuinely is a sign of the times worth attending to. Then, in the wider world of animal research, there’s the annual report from the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU), the organisation responsible for licensing, inspecting, and policing such work. This report too has just been published, though it actually reviews 2017. And more portentous still, a parliamentary ‘statutory instrument’ has now been issued which will disjoin the UK’s law – the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 – from that of the EU, with which it has been harmonized since 2012.

VERO has perused all these and some other newly published texts, and here is a view of what they amount to. Do your best to attend: this jungle of words is where millions of animals have to live, however briefly.

First, a stray and very specific publication from the Home Office, short-titled Additional Statistics. Here, we are finally told how many animals die in labs without ever appearing in the statistics of ‘procedures’. These are the animals (mostly mice, but also rats and fish, plus an undeclared 2% “other”) who have been bred but found unnecessary or unsuitable and therefore killed, or been used for tissue collection only, or been kept as ‘sentinels’ to test for infections circulating in the neighbourhood. Or they have simply died by mistake (i.e. human mistake: see the ASRU report below). The total of these animals in 2017 was 1,810,091. Therefore the total of all animals used in Great Britain’s laboratories last year, as the Home Office now declares, was about 5.53 million.

This is surely a very important addition to the statistics hitherto provided. The law, and accordingly perhaps the scientists themselves, don’t rate death very highly as a harm, compared to suffering. Death is therefore not classified as a ‘procedure’ even when (as is usually the case) it’s deliberately inflicted, nor does it require a licensed person to effect it, and it hasn’t until now been made part of any official count. But a public survey carried out by Ipsos MORI in 2013 showed very clearly that non-professionals think differently: “they saw death as the most serious harm which could be done to an animal . . . participants felt the public should know more about how many animals are killed.” That now they do know more is the result of the European Directive 2010/63 which governs animal research in all member states, and which requires this information to be issued once very five years. (The Directive was transposed into UK law in 2012, so 2017 is the first result of this provision). Why every five years, I don’t know. Nor does anyone seem to know (a more important uncertainty) whether the requirement will lapse in the UK after Brexit, assuming that Brexit occurs.

That brings us to another recent publication, The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (EU Exit) Regulations 2018, which specifies the alterations to UK law which will become necessary “on exit day”. Despite the resoundingly bureaucratic title, these alterations are surprisingly few; they take up hardly half a page of detailed adjustments. And indeed the much longer Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies them states emphatically that the changes “are the minimum necessary”. A convincing illustration: under the heading ‘Matters of special interest to the Committees on the UK’s exit from the European Union’ (a warning of difficulty or controversy) is the statement “None”.

Of course, nothing is said in the Memorandum, or can be said yet, about the pressures which may come when UK bioscience has to make a more solitary effort to “retain competitiveness in global markets” (as the Head of ASRU dismally expresses it). But in the course of emphasizing that all existing standards of welfare and supervision will be maintained, the Explanatory Memorandum does provide one very specific and most important reassurance: “Implementation of the 3Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) will contribute to the final goal of full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so, which was an aim enshrined in Directive 2010/63/EU.”

Admittedly the ambition thus re-stated commits nobody to anything, and it leaves to scientists the decision as to when full replacement has become possible, but as far as I have seen it’s the first time that this goal has been formally re-stated, perhaps even been mentioned anywhere in animal research circles, since its original declaration in the Directive. Yet it’s what really makes sense of the 3Rs. They’re not there just to discourage waste of life and pain, important as that purpose is. Still less are they a sort of passport or alibi for research which might otherwise be suspected of moral frivolity or negligence. The 3Rs should act as a constant and uncomfortable reminder that this sort of work is due to end.

That is not at all the impression of them which one gets from the Concordat’s literature or activities. There they seem to be regarded more as a sort of correct dress for scientists when appearing before the public – for instance, on web-sites. Nowhere there or in any UAR material (but of course I haven’t seen it all) can I find any endorsement of that statement from the Directive. Rather the contrary, because the purpose of UAR, and in particular of its Concordat project, is to make a secure and welcoming place in the modern UK for vivisection: to entrench it, in short. The primary aim of the Concordat, as twice stated in the Annual Report just published, is to “support confidence and trust in the life-sciences sector.” The progress which is aimed at, then, is not a change in scientific practice or in momentum towards animal-free research, but a change in public attitudes to the thing as it is.

The Concordat’s awards event and its annual report have both been fully featured in this blog on earlier occasions (see notes below). I don’t find any substantial differences this year, except in the scale of the public ‘engagement’ organised by its signatories: open days, virtual tours of laboratories, science fairs, links with schools, and so on. Always there has been one essential PR principle driving these things: to gain control of the public’s awareness. The principle is implied in the 2018 Report thus: “There is now more information about the use of animals in research in the public domain than ever and, crucially, it is owned and presented by more and more of the organisations who are responsible for funding, staffing and carrying out the research.”

Owned and presented” most immediately by professionals in PR, of course, rather than by scientists themselves, who have other things to do. One signed-up university is quoted in the Report praising its own progress in this direction, and showing how it works: “Members of the marketing and communications team have been invited to tour facilities and to take pictures and prepare videos for dissemination to the public.” We saw one symptom of this way of managing things on Oxford University’s web-site earlier in the year, where a gross mis-statement can only have been allowed to get in and endure because the scientists themselves were not even reading it. Incidentally, that web-site is the first of the four examples of web-sites chosen in the Report “to illustrate good practice”. We’re told that “UAR periodically checks statements [the ones made by signatories on their web-sites] throughout the year to make sure they are active” (i.e. up to date), but it’s evidently looking for show rather than substance.

As habitually, this year’s Concordat Report acknowledges that being honest about “harms done to animals in research” is “an area of challenge” for most signatories, and they continue to shy away from it, in their texts and even more obviously in their pictures and videos. The Report itself makes a first very modest attempt to set an example in its own illustrations (a brain scan on rats, a pig lying on an operating table), though since there are no explanatory captions, these images are hardly more illuminating than the ubiquitous ‘library pictures’ which the report deprecates. And even the Concordat does not expect anyone to go public about the sort of lab-blunders which account for some of those Additional Statistics discussed above. For these we must turn to the Animals in Science Regulation Unit’s Annual Report 2017 (i.e. covering 2017).

ASRU’s report is a comprehensive account of all its work during that year, including its licensing and inspection regime. The cases of ‘non-compliance’ which it had to discipline during the year are reviewed near the end, forty of them (compared to 45 last year, 55 in 2015: a promising sequence?). It’s a familiar record of failed communications, forgetfulness, under-staffing, lapsed attention, and occasionally real incompetence. The equivalent record for last year was treated in this blog at some length, and again there does not seem to have been any notable change. Mostly, of course, the victims of these errors were rodents: forgotten about at the week-end, overproduced in their thousands, cack-handedly half-killed. However, at least one possible contributor to that “other” category in the Additional Statistics (the 2% group) gets individual notice here:

A non-human primate . . . died when it became trapped between a restraint mechanism and a cage wall. Attempts by the Named Animal Care and Welfare Officer and other staff to resuscitate the animal were unsuccessful.

Here would indeed be an eloquent illustration to the relevant institution’s web-site. Even the brief text vividly evokes the unhappy scene.

But although one can learn a lot about laboratory life from the ASRU report – about the ordinary routines as well as the accidents – it shares with the Concordat’s more obviously  partisan survey the premise that animal research should be made to work acceptably in its given (= its best possible) form. No “final goal” is mentioned or even hinted at in the introductory blessing to ASRU’s account given by the relevant Home Office minister, Baroness Williams. (Her official title, just so we know how near the front of her mind animal welfare must be, is Minister of State for Countering Extremism.) Baroness Williams places animal research firmly in its commercial context: “The UK’s life science strategy is based on a vision of how the UK may exploit its current strengths to support strong economic growth in this sector.” However, strict regulation is important as well, and the minister’s prose takes a sort of zig-zag course between these two purposes: “As a regulator, the Home Office has an important role in balancing the need to enable innovation and research in the life sciences whilst maintaining public trust [the Concordat’s aim, remember] through a strong framework that has the necessary checks and balances.” And so on.

Proponents of animal research like to talk about a ‘middle ground’ between the two extremes, which is where moderate and realistic persons can discuss and manage the practice. This is indeed where most of the texts discussed above would be supposed by their writers to be located. But there is no such ground: at least, not as they imagine it. For although abolition exists as a real possibility at one end, the other ‘extreme’, a free for all, cannot exist in the UK (or the EU) except as criminality. The real far limit in that direction is simply present practice, which should, as the “final goal” of the Directive makes clear, always be closing up towards abolition. All the texts reviewed here are concerned in one way or another to present animal research to the public. In so far as they fail to acknowledge and promote its character as a practice in required motion towards oblivion, they misrepresent its true legal status and help to protract its wrongs. Perhaps that’s their purpose. At any rate, I’ve saved you from the ordeal of reading them.

 

Notes and references:

The Home Office’s Additional Statistics, published 8 November, can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/754408/breeding-genotyping-animals-scientific-procedures-2017-hosb2718.pdf

The Ipsos MORI survey of 2013, Openness in Animal Research, was commissioned as part of the Concordat preliminaries, and can be found on their web-site at http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/openness-in-animal-r.pdf. The quotation is from pp.34-5.

The Brexit regulations and the Explanatory Memorandum which goes with them, were first published on 1 October and are on the government’s web-site here: https://www.gov.uk/eu-withdrawal-act-2018-statutory-instruments/the-animals-scientific-procedures-act-1986-eu-exit-regulations-2018#sifting-committee-recommendation. The “final goal” is spoken of in paragraph 7.4.

The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research Annual Report 2018, ed. A.J.Williams and H.Hobson, is online here: http://concordatopenness.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Concordat-report-2018.pdf. Quotations are from pp. 48, 3, 22, 32-3, and 9. Last year’s Concordat report was featured in this blog on 18 December 2017: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/advent-pr-style/ See also, from 18 December 2016, https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/12/18/prize-day-with-the-concordat-folk/

The mis-statement on Oxford University’s web-site is discussed in this blog on 8 June 2018 here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

ASRU’s Annual Report 2017, published on 3 December, can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/761083/Animals_in_Science_annual_report.pdf .  Quotations are taken from the Ministerial Foreword and the Foreword by the Head of ASRU, William Reynolds. The quotation about the non-human primate is from non-compliance case 2, on p.30. ASRU’s previous report is featured in this blog on 30 March 2018: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/03/30/policing-the-lab/

On the Trail of an Untruth: the Sequel

A few weeks ago, this blog highlighted a plainly false statement in Oxford University’s online account of animal research (titled ‘Research using animals: an overview’) and traced it to its source: namely, the web-site of the PR organisation called Understanding Animal Research. The statement claimed that the numbers of animals used for research in the UK had nearly halved over the last thirty years, whereas in fact the numbers have risen by about 5% since 1987. They really did go down during the rest of that century, but since then have been going briskly upwards, with occasional modest dips. Perhaps this mis-statement may not seem to matter much; I’ll say something about its significance later on. Meanwhile, here is its latter fate.

Since nothing came of outing it in the blog or, before that, of reporting it to the Public Affairs Office which controls the University’s web-site – making five months or so of conscious misrepresentation – we wrote a letter about it to the University’s independent house journal, the excellent Oxford Magazine. This produced a very civil e-mail from the PAO. There had been some doubt as to what data had been used to substantiate the claim, we were told, and it now seemed right to remove it.

So far so good, but a more general claim was allowed to remain, namely that the number of animals had been “dramatically reduced”. We pointed out that this meant the same thing, though less mathematically. Yes, the Office conceded that the claim “referenced old national figures” (2001 figures to be exact). That phrase too was therefore removed, and a larger revision made of the whole web-page.

So let’s re-visit this page. Some of the old favourites are certainly still there. As before, we’re told three times that “There is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” Perhaps this repetition is thought to have persuasive value, but it rather suggests that the page is pasted together out of contributions from various sources rather than through-composed, a point I’ll come back to. The statement itself is not evidenced, true as it probably is, nor is the more tendentious statement that “Most people believe that in order to achieve medical progress . . . animal use is justified.” In fact the whole page needs foot-noting. Why should we take it all on trust? Academics shouldn’t expect us to.

Then, as before, the point is made at least twice that this research doesn’t only serve humans: “animal research benefits animals too. I’ve always felt that this is a dangerous justification, though one very frequently used. If it’s right, for instance, to make some dogs suffer for the benefit of other dogs, their equals in moral status (whatever we take that status to be), why isn’t it right to make the same rule for humans and their equals (i.e. each other)? But let’s put it the better way round: if it’s wrong to make humans suffer for each other, why isn’t it wrong in the case of the other animal species? Anyway the point is a disingenuous one: we know that these animal beneficiaries are not being helped for their own sakes. They’re mostly farm animals, whose routine dosing with medication is simply a commercial investment, or else they’re pet animals, likewise lent their value by humans. It’s the human valuation, in cash or affection, that does it.

And also still there on the ‘overview’ page, as part of the account of research with non-human primates, is the Escher-like statement, “At the end of its life the animal is humanely killed.” This formulation I used to think was intended as a sort of philosophical conundrum. Now I know it better as a bit of PR, a way of implying, without having to tell a lie, that the monkey has reached its natural term. But of course it is a lie, not just because the killing causes, instead of happily coinciding with, the end of the monkey’s life; the point is that it’s the monkey’s usefulness alive that has ended and prompted the killing, not its life.

Those are some of the familiar details which suggest that nothing essential has changed in the page, or in the habits of mind and practice which it represents. One of the most disturbing features of this ‘overview’ is its preoccupation with the treating of disease, as opposed to prevention or positive health. In fact these latter are not mentioned (except as vaccination). The page begins by stating that “Around half the diseases in the world have no treatment.” Accordingly, animal studies form one part of a “wide range of research techniques” whose aim is to find “cures, vaccines or treatments”. In the course of the text, some of these cures are listed, and their success evidenced. For instance, in the UK alone, “More than 50 million prescriptions are written annually for antibiotics.” (Can this be true?)

No doubt antibiotics, as well as many other such treatments, have been a very great blessing indeed to human health: which of us hasn’t profited from them? But the use of antibiotics – for humans and (notoriously) for animals – has illustrated the flaws in this adversarial model of health. Forty years ago, in the fine pioneering book The Moral Status of Animals (1977), Stephen Clark warned against this “arms race in which our ‘foes’ are always winning . . . Is it not time,” he asked, “to see what other attitudes there might be to the living world?” No doubt it’s unreasonable to look for these “other attitudes” in laboratories where vivisection is used, or in their promotional texts. Still, we can wish they were there. For unfortunately the whole practice of medicine has been conditioned by the militaristic world-view taken by those who service it with science.

Nor is there any suggestion in this ‘overview’ page that change is on the way for the animals. Despite the talk of reduction, replacement, etc., there is no expressed hope or expectation that the cages will ever be empty. In fact it’s noticeable that concessions to the ethical motive tend to appear in subordinate clauses of the type “While we are committed to reducing, replacing and refining animal research . . . “ or “While humans are used extensively in Oxford research . . . ”, the follow-up main clause showing that business must carry on as ever: for instance, “. . . there is overwhelming scientific consensus worldwide that some research using animals is still essential for medical progress.” The last paragraph of all is headed ‘How will humans benefit in future?’ The given answer is that new drugs and medical technologies will continue to be developed from (among other things) “the carefully regulated use of animals for research”. No end in sight, then.

It’s not possible to know how far this ‘overview’ really does represent the thinking in Oxford’s biomedical sciences. The disconcerting thing about that original mis-statement (to return there) is that any one of the scientists using animals at Oxford would have spotted its absurdity at once. That means that not only is this public account of Oxford University’s scientific practice not composed by the practitioners; they don’t even bother to read it. Even their Ethical Review Committee can’t have looked it over. I suppose that contributions have been canvassed from these people, who have come up with material of various kinds (including, no doubt, accurate numbers, but also resounding phrases like that one about the scientific consensus), and these have been patched together with prose connections and fixatives, and some material from such other sources as UAR, into the finished product which we see (but which they don’t feel the need to see). In fact, nobody has really said it or can take responsibility for it. It’s a PR collage, in which we may be seeing things really thought and done, but which cannot be relied upon at any particular point or as a whole.

This indeed has been the gift of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research, of which so much has been said in this blog: we can now enjoy the illusion of knowing what’s going on.

 

Notes and references:

The original post, ‘On the Trail of an Untruth’, can be read here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/on-the-trail-of-an-untruth/

‘Research using animals: an overview’ is here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research/research-using-animals-an-overview

A very clear chart showing the statistics of animal research since 1945 is provided on p.13 of the Home Office statistical report for 2016: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627284/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2016.pdf

The Moral Status of Animals by Stephen R. L. Clark was published by Oxford University Press. The quotation is from pp.172-3 of the 1984 paperback edition.

The Many and the One

The Home Office has now published statistics for the animal research done in Great Britain during 2017 (not the UK, because Northern Ireland publishes its own modest contribution to the scene separately).

Very little has changed since 2016 for these statistics to record (see the chart below), but there’s a notable innovation in the look of them. There are now three or four distinct colours, instead of the old black, white, and grey; the former tables and columns have been supplemented with graphs of zig-zagging lines in tonic blues; helpful comment and explanation appear in tinted text-boxes. In short the document has been designed to engage and even impress the reader, rather than merely to provide, with implicit apology, unwelcome information. This suggests the influence, perhaps even the direct advice, of Understanding Animal Research and its PR project, the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research. And UAR’s director, Wendy Jarrett, makes a comment on the statistics which reflects this new way of seeing them: not as a regretted cost, certainly not as a “necessary evil” (when was that phrase last used?), but as an index of achievement:

Animal research continues to play a vital part in the development of modern treatments and medicines. While the numbers of procedures may vary from year to year, we should be proud of the important contribution that the UK makes to scientific and medical advancement worldwide.

Here, anyway, is VERO’s summary of the numbers and species, alongside those of 2016, with some comments to follow:

 Species  Number used in 2016  Number used in 2017
 Mice   2,866,435    2,781,685
 Fish   535,819    514,059
 Rats   249,389    241,544
 Domestic fowl   139,860    125,280
 Sheep    48,095    47,499
 Guinea Pigs    26,186    22,560
 Horses    8,948    10,600
 Rabbits    15,431    10,362
 Dogs    4,932    2,496
 Non-human primates    3,569    2,215
 Other species    38,059    31,073
 Total:    3,936,723    3,789,373

Direction of travel:

For the second year in a row, there has been a welcome fall in the total number of animals used, this time a fall of slightly less than 4%. Nothing can be deduced from this; as the Home Office puts it “any clear trend for recent years is as yet difficult to determine.” However, there is a very clear trend for the century so far: a rise of nearly 45% since 2001’s 2.62 million. Nor is the prospect good. If the UK were to leave the European Union without making terms to remain a partner in REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemicals – a bad enough system already), it might have to create its own testing regime, duplicating what is done collaboratively in the rest of the EU. Or rather, it apparently would have to. A government minister truculently told a House of Lords committee  earlier this month, when asked about this possible secession from REACH, “if that required animal testing, that would require animal testing.”

The term ‘procedure’:

Viewing the Home Office’s annual pageantry of numbers, so eloquent of orderly record-keeping and nothing if not factual, the dazzled reader must keep in mind that the basic unit, the regulated ‘procedure’, is itself an unknown quantity. A helpful hint to this effect is provided in one of those text-boxes, where ‘procedures’ in the plural is defined in the singular, a confusion of number which characterizes all official documents when dealing with this point, for very good reason.

Those horses, for instance. You’ll notice that they’re one of the few species in greater demand this last year. Mainly, it seems, they’re made to yield blood products for use in medical diagnosis and other scientific analysis. What: just the once each? Of course not: it’s really their career, and that would be the right term for what is asked of all these animals. Some animals may eventually retire, as perhaps the horses do: much more commonly, the end of their part in the project coincides with the end of their life. (This is something which the statistics ought to record, but in fact they say nothing about death.) Either way, the term ‘procedure’, with its suggestion of a single experience, is a misleading fiction, and therefore so are all these numbers.

Classifying the pain:

Actually the statistics do say something about death. Being found dead in your cage after a ‘procedure’ is one of the indicators for a ‘severe’ classification, we’re told. Others include needing help to eat and drink (to survive, in short). It may be that the statistics for each of the four main levels of suffering – sub-threshold, mild, moderate, severe – really are informative. They seem to change very little from year to year (the Home Office notices this), but I don’t know what that implies.

About 5% of procedures (not including GM breeding) are said to have imposed ‘severe’ suffering on the animals involved (95,025 of them) during 2017. So-called ‘regulatory testing’ (tests required by law in the EU or the UK, or beyond) takes a disproportionately high part in this category. Of its 505,000 or so procedures, 10% or more were considered severe. That’s no surprise, since this class of work includes toxicity-testing (195,000 procedures), and the Home Office statistics show that for this purpose the LD50 and LC50 tests – identifying the Lethal Dose or Lethal Concentration that kills half the animals – are still in use.

Numbers and individuals:

How much does anyone really learn from these numbers? No doubt they provide a rough knowledge of the scale of animal research, and which species and which purposes are tending upward and which down. But it is rough knowledge. Not just the basic term ‘procedure’ is opaque: the classifications of research are uninformative. Thus, one cat, of the 198 cats dealt with in 2017 (190 in 2016), suffered pain in the category ‘severe’. The purpose of the research in question was ‘animal diseases and disorders’. That’s all that there’s space to tell us. And how dependable even that much is may be deduced from the ‘Revisions’ to previous years’ statistics attached at the end. Here we find, for instance, that 5,930 sheep and 1700 horses which had appeared under ‘protection of the environment’ (itself a sinister enough category) were in fact engaged in ‘routine production – blood products’. It’s not so much that a mistake has been made – easily enough done in the stress of all this bureaucracy. More sobering is how little an outsider can make of the difference.

Animal protection groups quite reasonably tend to call the annual statistics ‘shocking’. I would say instead ‘stupefying’. Seeing these great phalanxes of animals moved around in their graphs, columns, tables, and other formations simply dulls the imagination. In fact, to re-iterate other posts in this blog (and the whole annual performance is after all a wretched re-iteration), these statistics are a variety of euphemism. Certainly they’re much better than secrecy, but they take the mind off the subject of individual suffering, which is the one thing that matters. Just occasionally, in the smaller numbers, momentary illuminations are offered as to what we’re really seeing: that one cat, for instance, needing help to eat or drink, suffering pains which “a person would find difficult to tolerate” (Home Office guidance on the ‘severe’ category), or perhaps being found mercifully dead in the cage.

By way of final re-iteration, I shall re-append the picture of the Oxford University OU primatemacaque monkey: suggested caption, ‘Waiting for the End’.

 

Notes and references:

The Home Office’s publication, Annual Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, Great Britain 2017 can be read here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/724611/annual-statistics-scientific-procedures-living-animals-2017.pdf

I should add that a much more informative annual account of animal research is provided in the Non-Technical Summaries (i.e. of proposed research), also published by the Home Office. There is more about the NTS in the VERO blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/if-you-poison-us-do-we-not-die/

Wendy Jarrett’s comment, and Understanding Animal Research’s response in general, can be read on their web-site here: http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/news/communications-media/animal-research-numbers-in-2017/

The government minister who spoke to the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee was Therese Coffey MP, at a session on 18 July of this year.

The complete Home Office guidance to ‘severity’ is provided in Advisory notes on recording and reporting the actual severity of regulated procedures, 2014, especially pp.12-13.