The European Commission made the comments today explaining that while it agrees drug toxicity tests using animals should eventually be phased out, at present it is impossible to do so as scientific challenges remain.
“Where the toxicological or physiological processes and mechanisms are not sufficiently understood or are very complex, alternative solutions are often not available. Thus, the complete replacement of animal studies is currently not possible while needing to ensure a high level of protection of human and animal health and the environment.”
The Commission said although development of replacement tests is advancing, banning animal research outright – which was called for the in Stop Vivisection European Citizens Initiative petition filed in March – would be premature and drive research away from Europe.
It also rejected the petitioners contention animal models are not suitable for predicting human responses and that their use hinders development of alternatives.
Instead the Commission argued that “animal models have been the key scientific drivers to develop almost all existing effective and safe medical treatments and prevention measures for human and animal diseases.
“In medicine development, animal models have been very effective in removing candidate medicines that could have been dangerous to humans when tested in later clinical phases.”
The Commission also said the EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation (FPs) – Horizon 2020 – underlines its commitment to eliminating animal testing, explaining that: “More than €250 million was dedicated during FP7 to research into alternatives.”
Somewhat ironically, the reference to Health 2020 comes a day after pharmaceutical industry groups voiced concerns about cuts to the programme and contrasted it to a planned funding increase for equivalent schemes run by the US National Institutes of Health.
Dr Paul Browne, Research Editor at Speaking of Research, told us "We welcome the decision by the European Commission to reject the Stop Vivisection Initiative.
"EU Directive 2010/63 which governs animal experiments has been a step forward for both animal welfare and better science. They put the 3Rs – Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of animals in research – at the heart of the rules governing animal experiments.
Browne added that: "Animal research continues to play a key part in medical advances. Only last week we learned about a new lung cancer therapy that performed very well in clinical trials, allowing patients with the disease to live longer; this treatment was only possible thanks to studies in transgenic mice."
In contrast the European Commission's response was criticised by animal rights group PETA.
PETA UK science policy advisor Julia Baines said the Commission had “opted to bury its head in the sand and disregard the call from MEPs and over 1.2m Europeans to engage in a public debate about the validity of using animals for scientific research.”
Baines reiterated the claim that animal research is not appropriate for trying to gauge the likely toxicity of a candidate drug in humans, citing an opinion piece published in the British Medical Journal last year to support the argument.