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.

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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 awfully 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 were 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