The European Commission is unlikely to support an outright ban on the use of non-human primates in research, but has just published a new document which indicates that significant changes to current legislation are envisioned.
Animal welfare in the use of non-human primates in laboratory experimentation recently came to the top of the agenda in the European Parliament. The basis of this is the revision of Directive 86/609/EC, which forms the centre of the control measures for animal research across all European countries.
The Commission has made a response to the declaration and although an outright ban on the use of non-human primates has been all but ruled out, the 86/609/EC (in force since 1986) directive will undergo significant revision.
In September 2007 a record number of European parliament members (MEP) (433) signed a written declaration put forward by an animal welfare group based in the UK called Animal Defenders International. Currently round 12 million animals are used per year for experiments in the EU and of these, around 10, 000 are non-human primates.
The declaration has called for a timetable to be established for the phasing out of non-human primate use in animal experiments. Some MEPs and animal rights campaigners have called for an immediate ban believing that the primate's genetic proximity to humans and their highly developed social skills raise very important ethical issues. If this were to go ahead other arrangements would need to be made to support vital research into cancer and AIDS for which the European parliament is calling for additional research to be carried out.
Article 7 of Directive 86/609/EEC requires that "an experiment shall not be performed if another scientifically satisfactory method of obtaining the result sought, not entailing the use of an animal, is reasonably and practicably available."
This means that alternative methods of carrying out required experiments aside from using non-human primates should actively be sought. As the directive is over 20 years old it does not take into account more modern advances in research and also new knowledge about animal welfare in research environments. The directive is now being debated and will then be revised with appropriate input from each of the EU member States.
Article 7 of the Directive also states that "When an experiment has to be performed, the choice of species shall be carefully considered and, where necessary, explained to the authority."
"In a choice between experiments, those which use the minimum number of animals, involve animals with the lowest degree of neuro-physiological sensitivity, cause the least pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm and which are most likely to provide satisfactory results shall be selected. Experiments on animals taken from the wild may not be carried out unless experiments on other animals would not suffice for the aims of the experiment."
This is still open to a certain amount of interpretation and there is no provision for ethical evaluation or compulsory authorisation, which are both necessary as control measures. It would appear that although some may accept the use of animals in general for medical research many do make a distinction when it comes to non human primates.
Clearly if an alternative to animal experimentation is available it must be used but the debate at the moment seems to centre on the use of non-human primates. Joe Wildy of the Bioindustry Association in the UK believes that it would not be immediately possible to introduce a ban on the use of non-human primates.
However, the BIA noted that: "a review of the directive is underway and the European Commission is in internal discussions and negotiations with the Directorate Generals (D-G) which should take about two months before proposals are drafted, translated and put before the European Parliament to produce a report and eventually a codecision... it must be remembered that parliament, which is full of lay people, will have as much right to decide what revisions are made."