Yesterday, the Home Office announced the UK animal research statistics for 2011. Most of the media reporting has been balanced, but there has been some disappointing coverage so it is worth investigating the Home Office figures in a little detail.
Just over 3.7 million scientific experiments on animals were started in Great Britain in 2010, an increase of 105,000 on the previous year. When GM animals are excluded from the statistics, the total number of procedures rose by 18,000. Nearly all animal procedures involve rodents or fish, and in 2011. The statistics show that breeding to produce genetically modified (GM) animals and harmful mutants (an animal with potentially harmful genetic defects) make up 1.6 million of the procedures. Two-thirds of these genetically modified animals used are bred to maintain stocks and set up genetic crosses are not directly used in experiments.
The growing numbers of animals used in experiments is predominantly because of an increasing reliance on zebrafish. These fish are transparent for roughly the first three days of their lives and therefore very useful for studying how bones, organs and tissues develop.
This year, we have also seen an increase in the proportion of procedures that are for veterinary reasons. What the statistics do not reveal is that a 'procedure' can be as mild as taking a blood sample and the research can refer to veterinary studies, such as studying cat nutrition or transmissible diseases in farm animals and environmental purposes.
It is also worth putting numbers of animals used in research into context. The 3.79 million procedures may seem big to some, but it’s worth comparing to the consumption of animals and fish for food. It is estimated that UK meat and fish eaters consume 2.5 billion animals every year, nearly 700 times the number that are used in research. Tonnage figures from the Marine Management Organisation reveal that vessels landed 606,000 tonnes of sea fish (including shellfish) into the UK in 2010.
Without animals, we would not have benefited from advances that have given us the antibiotics, vaccines and anaesthetics that we now take for granted. Animals are used when there is a need to find out what happens in the whole living body, which is far more complex than the sum of its parts.
Where medical research is concerned, we have a straightforward option: continue with medical research, and continue to save and improve lives, or stop medical research, and stop our quest to cure Alzheimer's, HIV, cancer, and every single disease that is currently untreatable. For me personally, the decision is obvious: we have to prioritise human life at the same time as continuing to strive to reduce the number of animals used in research.
Stephen WhiteheadABPI Chief Executive