The Belgian biomedical research sector has welcomed the publication of the first comprehensive statistics from across the EU, including Belgium, on all uses of animals in scientific, medical and veterinary research.
The headline figures in the EU report show that the total number of animals used in the EU in 2017 was 9,388,162 – the equivalent figure in 2016 was 9,817,946. More than 92% of the total were mice, fish, rats and birds, whereas dogs, cats and monkeys, account for around 0.25% of the total.
The total is made up of animals used in basic and applied research, and regulatory studies aimed at ensuring the safety of medicines and other products, routine production and education and training.
Statistics were also released for animal use in Belgium in 2017 (see case study below) although these have been superseded by the recent release of the 2018 statistics. The most used animals in Belgium in 2017 were mice, rabbits and fish, which represented 81.2% of the total – dogs, cats and monkeys made up 0.08% (see also Notes to Editors below).
Belgium’s biomedical sector confirmed its commitment to openness in December 2019 when 18 institutions signed a Transparency Agreement to communicate in a more open way about how animals are used in research.
Dogs can be used to test new drugs before clinical trials are conducted in humans, while monkeys are also used in drug testing and have played a significant role in research in AIDS and developing treatments for Parkinson’s disease.
Commenting on the figures, Kirk Leech, executive director of the European Animal Research Association (EARA), said: “The EU biomedical sector is committed to transparency and openness on the use of animals in research and this is another step towards that.”
“Using animals as a research model is often the only way to develop new treatments and understanding of the human body and we congratulate the EU for making these statistics public.”
Stripping down bacterial armour: a new way to fight anthrax
Research scientists in Belgium have found a new method to treat anthrax disease in infected mice, raising hope for new effective treatments for humans.
Scientists at the VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology, Brussels, have applied Nanobodies® - small antibody fragments – to study the structure and control the development of the protein that forms a protective armour around the anthrax bacterium.
The study results show that mice infected with B. anthracis all recovered from lethal anthrax when treated with Nanobodies.
When inhaled or consumed, anthrax spores rapidly develop into a deadly and difficult to treat infection. Although primarily affecting wildlife and livestock animals around the world, people handling or consuming contaminated animal products can develop life-threatening skin and gastrointestinal anthrax disease.
Han Remaut, co-scientific director of the VUB-VIB Center for Structural Biology:
“Our immune system works hard to kill and remove invasive bacteria. However, several pathogenic bacteria have found ways to evade the immune system and cause serious disease.
Through in vitro testing we have shown that our new approach severely weakened the anthrax causing bacterium. But whether this would have significant therapeutic effects in an actual infection could only be tested in a live animal. The experiments we performed in a very small number of mice prove that our approach merits to be further pursued in search of new treatments for certain bacterial infections.”
Separate figures were also produced to record the number of animals that were bred but not used in experiments, this was 12,597,816 across the EU. These can be animals that underwent no procedures themselves; that were the wrong gender for a particular research study; or were a necessary surplus from breeding.
There was also a figure for animals used for the creation and maintenance of genetically altered animal lines (1,276,587) across the EU.
Most of the medicines we have come from animal research. Often science doesn’t need to use animals, but for many key questions they are crucial.
Animals are used alongside several other techniques such as cell cultures, human studies and computational models. These methods are used – often in tandem – to answer the key biological questions necessary to understand and treat disease. Before an animal model is selected, researchers must show that the knowledge could not be acquired using non-animal methods.
Notes to the editor
Animal research is strictly regulated under the EU Directive 2010/63. Every procedure, from a simple blood test to major surgery, requires individual, establishment and project licences, as well as approval from animal welfare and ethical review bodies.
All organisations are committed to the ‘3Rs’ of replacement, reduction and refinement. This means avoiding or replacing the use of animals where possible; minimising the number of animals used per experiment and optimising the experience of the animals to improve animal welfare. However, as institutions expand and conduct more research, the total number of animals used can rise even if fewer animals are used per study.
Since 2013, it has been illegal to sell or import cosmetics anywhere in the EU where the finished product or its ingredients have been tested on animals.
Dogs are currently being used to develop treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a debilitating muscle wasting disease that has no cure and ultimately leads to early death.
Like humans, non-human primates (NHPs) have a prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved in cognitive behaviour. This means that NHPs can help scientists understand how the brain works and help us develop treatments for neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and OCD.
Why can’t these statistics be compared to previous reports from the old legislation?
These new EU reports were developed to provide significantly more detailed and tailored information on animal use. Moreover, the new reports cover areas of animal use that were not included in the reports under the previous legislation. They also include aspects of animal use, which have not previously been available, for example, on the genetic status of animals and the actual severity experienced by the animals during their use in procedures. In terms of numbers, some uses of animals, which were previously grouped together, are now covered by different sections of this report.
As errors are being detected and consistency improved, it is clear that some of the fluctuations in numbers, or even what may seem to appear as trends at this early stage, may indeed instead be due to improved understanding of the reporting obligations. For these same reasons it is too early to draw conclusions on any firm trends on the basis of the first three years of data.
The European Animal Research Association (EARA) is an organisation that communicates and advocates on biomedical research using animals and provides accurate, evidence-based information. It has more than 80 partner organisations, including private and public research bodies, universities, regional and national biomedical associations and suppliers, across 17 European countries.