European Union strengthens its regulations on animal testing
BRUSSELS — Primates, including mankind's closest relatives -- chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans -- have gained new protection after the European Parliament backed a clampdown on animal testing.
"The use of non-human primates should be permitted only in those biomedical areas essential for the benefit of human beings, for which no other alternative replacement methods are yet available," a new EU law said.
The strongest protection was given to the "great apes," although sustained public pressure has already ensured that none have been used in European Union research in eight years.
Less stringent measures were brought in to protect the 12,000 other smaller primates, such as macaques, used in EU labs each year.
The revision of the 25-year-old rules had originally envisaged a more complete ban on primate research, but they were heavily contested and lobbied by industry.
Researchers argued primates were indispensable for work to find cures for diseases including HIV, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, hepatitis, malaria, multiple sclerosis and tuberculosis.
In theory, great apes can be used in such research, but in practice license applications face rigorous EU scrutiny.
Researchers said a fair balance had been found.
"Today's agreement should bring direct and tangible animal welfare benefits and allow essential medical research to continue in Europe to deliver the new and innovative treatments," said drug industry group EFPIA.
Some 12 million vertebrate animals are used each year in experiments throughout the 27-nation EU -- half for drug development and testing, a third for biology studies and the rest for cosmetics tests, toxicology and disease diagnosis.
Around 80% are mice and rats, and primates account for about a tenth of 1%, or about 12,000 animals.
Researchers will have to keep files on the history of each individual primate, dog or cat to ensure their welfare needs are met. They will also be obliged to use alternatives to animal testing whenever they are available.
Government authorities will be required to perform inspections on laboratories, some of them snap checks.
Animal rights campaigners gave the rules a mixed welcome, saying they represented business as usual for laboratories in Germany and Britain but might lead to improvements in Eastern Europe.
"This directive also sends a challenge to other countries such as the United States where chimps are still used in significant numbers," said campaigner Wendy Higgins of Humane Society International.
-- Pete Harrison, Reuters
Photo: A chimpanzee named Pippo holds a frozen snack at Rome's Bioparco zoo on July 2. Credit: Pier Paolo Cito / Associated Press