Parliament debate on animal medical research

As I pointed out yesterday, there was a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday lunchtime in which [tag]Evan Harris[/tag] (local [tag]Oxford[/tag] MP) argued for labels to be put on pills outlining if they have been tested on animals, plus ask the Department of Health to add the same information on press releases, plus speak up in favour of [tag]animal testing[/tag].

(Interestingly, immediately after, the other central Oxford MP, Andrew Smith, played a big part in a debate on new Sunday trading laws – although he didn’t appear to mention the appalling loss of small shops on Cowley Road because of ridiculous rent increases.)

You can read the whole exchange on Hansard by clicking here.

However, I will post the whole thing below just for simplicity’s sake. The basic upshot was that Minister of State, Department of Health, Andy Burnham said he agreed with the basic proposals, but didn’t commit to it in any way, using the classic civil service get-out that “a cost-benefit analysis is required” for risks that he was unable to list. No doubt part of that analysis will be to find the risks that are being analysed in the first place.

He also, unsurprisingly, disagreed with the assertion that the Department of Health under Labour have never said anything in support of animal testing, although he was only able to point to Tony Blair’s recent conversion and promised to send on other examples. What’s the betting they don’t exist? High, I reckon.

Anyway, I thought I should do a quick follow-up as I had mentioned it yesterday. Here is the full transcript:

Medical Research (Animals)
1.27 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I welcome you, Miss Begg. I think that this is the first Adjournment debate that I have had with you in the Chair, and I am pleased to see you. I also welcome the Minister, because this is the first time I have introduced an Adjournment debate with him in his new role at the Department of Health. He has long taken an interest in health, both before becoming an MP and in his early and brief days as a Government Back Bencher.

We debate the role of animal research in health care and medicines against a background of animal rights extremism, and there is no denying that. I do not want to talk too much about animal rights extremism, as I want to discuss the broader issues that we need to address to win the hearts and minds of the public over the value of, and therefore the need for, well-regulated animal research. However, it is worth saying a few things about what has happened recently in the context of Oxford, but not to concentrate on them too much.

I certainly recognise that animal rights activists have an ethical position that is coherent. That position is that we should not use animals as a means to benefit humans. That is not a position I agree with, but I recognise that one can hold it and that to do so is not wholly outlandish or irrational. However, if one argues on that basis, one must look first at the use of animals by the million—indeed, by a multiple of those used in medical research—for human consumption and other uses by humans. There is less value in using animals in that way, as it provides menu choice but is not essential for saving human life in the way that animal research in the biosciences is essential for finding insights into diseases and for safety-testing medicines that save life and significantly improve the human condition.

The part of the animal rights movement that I strongly disagree with is that which attacks science and has a pseudo-scientific justification for its position. However, those involved take that position because they know that it is hard to argue against the use of animals in medical research, particularly as it is so tightly regulated in this country and is used only in the context of the3 Rs—the aim to reduce, refine and replace.

For reasons that I shall come to later, people in that part of the animal rights movement choose not to concentrate their fire on the farming, abattoir and butchery industries, but resort to anti-scientific methods. I feel very strongly that we need to expose that as wrong, irrational, unfair and anti-scientific.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject and for giving way. Does he accept that the animal rights movement has not attacked the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals regulations—the REACH regulations—in Europe, although those will mean about 3 million animals being bred for research, with very little defined benefit for mankind? Will he draw attention to that?

Dr. Harris: It is fair to say that the broader animal welfare movement is split, with the WWF supporting, and indeed instigating, the REACH regulations. However,
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to be fair to anti-vivisection organisations—I am always keen to be fair—have made representations to the Science and Technology Committee, on which the hon. Gentleman and I serve, opposing those regulations because of the number of animals used.

I want to concentrate on the false arguments used by the animal rights lobby on the validity and value of animal research for the production of medicines, and, before that, on getting insights into the development of disease, both veterinary and human.

It goes without saying that I condemn unreservedly the violence, intimidation and harassment used by animal rights activists. I urge the mainstream animal rights organisations to condemn unreservedly violence, intimidation and harassment, and not by saying, “We condemn violence against both people and animals,” because there is a difference, even if some choose to define research using animals as violence. One is lawful and sanctioned by Parliament, and tightly regulated; the other is wholly unlawful criminal behaviour. The two should not be mixed. Therefore, condemning violence against people and animals, in the way that some organisations do, is not an acceptable way of claiming to condemn those techniques.

Mainstream organisations need to condemn that violence, because it will enhance them and their cause if they dissociate themselves from what they must recognise, and many do, as not representative of the vast bulk of people who care about animal welfare, nor even of those people who describe themselves as animal rights activists.

To turn to the general issues of which I have given the Minister notice, the Department of Health, the NHS and the pharmaceutical industry need to do far more to explain to, and educate, the British public—through the media, but also on occasion by educating the media—about the value and essential nature of research using animals. That is not done sufficiently.

Perhaps the Minister can help me with this, but I have not found a speech by a Secretary of State for Health in which the main issue was the value to our health service of the work done by beleaguered scientists, including those in Oxford, who work in basic science or do pre-clinical work to produce new insights into disease, new targets for drugs and new drugs.

People working in the NHS, whom I accept are hard pressed, do not recognise that they, too, have a roleto play in taking every opportunity, within reason, to make it clear what work has been done on animals to help to provide the health care that they deliver. Clinicians are busy people, so there is the following strong argument to be made about research, whether it is sponsored through NHS research and development funding, or worked on by the Department of Health or the Medical Research Council: somewhere in press releases about breakthroughs in human—that is, clinical—trials, there should be, perhaps in the notes to editors, a statement that the therapy was developed through animal models.

That statement should detail what those models were, and, when applicable, what animals had been used to test efficacy and safety before the relevant medication was put into man. It should also point out
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that the use of animals was an essential part of the process. The onus would then be on the media to report that part of the story.

We should make the provision of such information a general rule, so that individual scientists would not feel singled out when it was provided. When I volunteered for tests on a putative HIV vaccine, I made it clear, as best I could, in live interviews—otherwise it was edited out—that I had done so knowing, and being grateful for, the fact that the vaccine had been developed using animal models. It had been tested on animals for efficacy, at least in respect of immunogenic impact; primate models had developed the immune response that researchers were looking for.

I do not want to blow my own trumpet, but we need more people to seize every opportunity to make that point. If they do not, we shall not convince the public of the need to safeguard animal research. We can rejoice—if that is the right word—in the recent convictions and long sentences. We can welcome, as I certainly do, the actions of the young people in the Pro-Test movement in Oxford. They put the case positively for research using animals, rather than simply opposing the extremism. We can welcome all that, but those acute, short-term effects have to be sustained.

I worry about polls that reveal the high number of school leavers who have a negative view of animal research, think it cruel and unnecessary, and have read and accepted the propaganda of the animals rights movement. I speak generally; the counter-argument has been more successful among those who have been exposed to debates on the subject.

There is an overwhelming argument for using the opportunity of medicines labelling to make the case for animal research. It has two bases. First, the educative one: it is right that the key role that animals have played in the development of the therapeutic option, in identifying what the drug is targeting and in testing for the efficacy and safety of it—any and all of those, as they apply—should be explained to consumers at the point of use. That is important; it is not done, but it needs to be.

Secondly, informed consent means that people are entitled to know about the contentious issue of whether drugs have been tested on animals. People are entitled to know that, whether or not it would make a difference to whether they would choose to use a drug. We label as to whether food is GM-derived, even if there is no GM product left in it, on the basis that consumers have a right to know and should be able to choose whether they want to support GM technology.

I do not think that many people would refuse to use animal-tested medicines if such labelling were introduced—I hope that very few or no people would—but it is important that people should have that right. The argument that we should not label in that way because people might choose on ethical grounds not to have treatment only proves me right. That view is paternalistic; we must recognise that competent adults have a right to make such decisions for themselves. That paternalistic argument is the worst that could be used, because it sells the pass on the right of people to give informed consent for their treatment.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has said to me, and said on the radio this
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morning, that the issue is difficult. Well, labelling is difficult. It would involve legislation, and it might be difficult or inequitable for it to be introduced in this country and not others, but we have requirements for labelling in this country and in the European Union. I want the Government to say that they accept that a good case has been made and that they will explore what can be done to bring such labelling about.

I come back to the point I made at the beginning of the debate. One reason for animal rights activists not targeting the food industry is that they know it would be difficult to argue, as they have on animal research, that such testing is useless. Everyone who eats meat, and presumably enjoys doing so, recognises that there is a direct benefit from having the meat industry. However, what they do not see—unless and until, sadly, they are ill, and it might be explained to them—is the direct benefits of research using animals. They see it as testing things for other people, not for them.

In the same way, as the Minister will be aware, people do not necessarily correctly quantify the risks, if there are any, from mobile phones and mobile phone masts. They see the benefit of the mobile phone that they use, so they discount their fear of the risk, even though the dose from their phone might be greater than that from a mast. They do not see a direct benefit from mobile phone masts, even though they might use a mobile phone—one might consider that a little quirky, to say the least—so large numbers of them campaign against the masts.

Animal rights campaigners recognise that there is a similar issue here, which is why they do what they do, and we must counter that. I fear that the climate will not always be such that the vast majority of the public believes that animal research is essential. However, if we can conquer animal rights extremism and unlawful behaviour through the efforts of the police and the intelligence services, that will bolster public opinion in support of animal research. If we are successful, we can then go back to the battle, which I am happy to have, to secure public support for animal research that does not rely, in a strange way, on the animal rights extremists’ counter-productive activities.

I hope that the Minister will offer me some comfort on the points that I have made, particularly on the lead that Health Ministers can take by backing the admirable work done by Lord Sainsbury, the science Minister, and, on occasion, by the Prime Minister. I also hope that there will be action on the design of press releases to ensure that the press have the option of reporting on animal research.

Finally, I hope that the Government will look seriously at allowing patients to give informed consent and at educating the public generally through medicines labelling.

Bob Spink: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on how he has presented his comments. I agree with everything that he has said, and he has said it very well, but would it help his case and help to win over the public if he confirmed that the UK has one of the strictest licensing regimes in the world for using animals in medical research? Research can be conducted in the UK only if no non-animal options are available. Only essential research takes place, and the animal’s welfare is always at the forefront.

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Dr. Harris: I certainly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The key point is to recognise that work is being done on finding replacements, refining animal experiments and minimising the number of animals used. However, we must recognise—this is my only criticism on the issue—that as more animal modelsare created as a result of transgenic research, more breeding pairs will be produced. That is particularly true of mice. More mice will be used, so we need to lower expectations on whether there will be a reduction in the overall numbers.

That technique is powerful, and as more genes are identified, more animal models may be used. We will continue to see an increase there, but minimisation of the numbers is still possible within that, and I wholly endorse the strategy of the three R’s. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
1.43 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Andy Burnham): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate and I am grateful to him for the measured and informed way in which he spoke. It is characteristic of his approach on these matters, about which he is well informed.

I am also pleased that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has made an effort to be here. During my remarks, I hope that those outside who pay attention to these proceedings will see that there is a consensus between the three of us and, more broadly, between our political parties. That shows that mainstream opinion is firmly on one side of the argument and sends an important message to the public.

I am pleased to be back at the Department of Health and I was grateful to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon for welcoming me back. During my time dealing with identity cards and other matters, I also had responsibility at the Home Office for the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, so, usefully, I saw the licensing side of this issue and I have acquired experience that I hope will inform how I do my current job.

I agree with almost all of the hon. Gentleman’s points. He made some challenges to the Department, and I will want to address them. However, let me begin by saying that animal research and testing has played a part in almost every medical breakthrough of the last century and is vital to the functioning of our national health service. In recent times, research using animals has led to new treatments and therapies for many conditions including stroke, which is the third largest cause of death in the United Kingdom and the largest single cause of severe disability. Studies with mice and rats have shown the complicated cascade of events that takes place during and after a stroke and have led to successful treatments being developed. These include drugs that prevent or inhibit the harm caused by glutamate, which damages the brain cells and is released in huge quantities during a stroke. New treatments being tested on animals include stem cells and bone marrow injections, which appear to restore much of the brain’s function.

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In introducing my remarks, I want to take head-on the hon. Gentleman’s challenge. If I interpreted correctly, there was a criticism that the case for animal research and testing was not made strongly enough across all arms of government. I refute that by saying that it is evident that the Government from the very top down—from the Prime Minister downwards—have been steadfast in supporting necessary animal research and testing. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he made reference to that. Support for that comes from the top, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no differences of opinion between the Departments of Government.

It is also important to introduce a note of balance by saying that it is Government policy to support what is called the 3 Rs agenda—reduction, refinement and replacement. Where possible, we should work to reduce the number of animals used. The hon. Member for Castle Point made that point. We see the need for this balance; we support animal research and testing, and we robustly and resolutely defend that principle in many forums, but we also say clearly to the public that where necessary and where possible we will support the reduction of animal use.

Bob Spink: Will the Minister clarify that the refinement element of the 3 Rs addresses the welfare of the animal by making sure that that is as high as possible in all circumstances?

Andy Burnham: I gladly confirm that.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point in his intervention on the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. Speaking from the Home Office perspective, as I used to do, it is right that the British regime for the conduct of research and testing in this area is, I would go so far as to say, perhaps the best and the strictest in the world. We set the standard for many other countries to follow; they look to us for standards of animal welfare in science and in research and development. One of the great ironies of the actions of so-called animal rights extremists is that if they achieve their goal and drive this work from our shores, they could drive it to countries that have a far less strict regime for the conduct of such research, and by implication they could therefore cause more suffering to animals in the long run. They would do well to think about that point.

That is not to say that, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon mentioned, there are not groups that legitimately apply pressure in respect of reduction, refinement and replacement. We should hear that pressure and respond to it wherever we can, but without losing sight of the central point that is being made in this debate: that we should strongly, clearly and, if possible, in unison defend the use of animal experiments to the wider public. That is certainly the position that I am here today unequivocally to support.

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote an article published in The Sunday Telegraph on 14 May, setting out the Government’s position on animal testing and our determination to stand up to animal rights extremism and to protect those targeted by it. The article sets out
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the importance of as many people as possible standing up to extremists; recognises that British scientists and companies are at the forefront of research that saves and improves the quality of countless lives; and affirms that we should be proud that the UK leads the way in the robustness of our licensing regime and in developing new testing techniques.

I wholeheartedly endorse those sentiments. The Government, police and courts are making increased efforts to stamp out illegal and intimidatory conduct by animal rights extremists. We have a comprehensive strategy, with the Prime Minister taking overall charge, and we have made excellent progress in better co-ordinating our efforts. The Government have injected significant new resources into that work. At national level, a specialist team has been set up to co-ordinate operations against extremists. At local level, awareness has been strengthened through workshops with local police, and the issue is being flagged as a key priority in the national policing plan.

More people, including health professionals, are now prepared to speak out on behalf of research using animals, as the hon. Gentleman said. In February 2006, the “Pro-Test” campaign attracted twice as many demonstrators on to the streets as the anti-testing demonstration on the same day. I believe that the former demonstration was attended by many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, if it did not go through part of his constituency. I commend the courage of the demonstrators in defying the bullying and intimidatory tactics of the small number of extremists.

The centrepiece of the hon. Gentleman’s comments related to Health Ministers and the Department itself being on the front foot and supporting the agenda that he has outlined. I strongly welcome the “People’s Petition”, registering support for the properly regulated animal testing that takes place in this country. It has attracted thousands of signatures and gives voice to the majority position in this country. The hon. Gentleman is doing a great deal to ensure that that position continues to command majority support from the public, and I commend his efforts in making the public argument, as he does whenever he has the opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman expressed a need for Health Ministers to defend, promote and support essential medical research. That is what we do. Wherever possible, the Department of Health—together with the pharmaceutical industry, the scientific community and funders of research using animals—makes the case strongly for the importance of such research. All those partners have a role to play in explaining its legitimate and responsible use.

Ministers from my Department, the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry have spoken many times on that subject. The hon. Gentleman said that he had not found such a speech. I can refer him to countless speeches and comments from Ministers not only in the Department of Health but across the spectrum. In those speeches and comments, he will find unanimous support for the position that I am outlining. We set out, and will carry on setting out, the benefits of medical research and the fact that the UK has the strictest regime in the world for animal testing, designed to minimise suffering and to ensure the highest welfare standards.

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The Government are committed to developing alternatives to animal testing wherever possible, and fund work to reduce, refine and one day replace the use of animals in research. UK universities and companies have an excellent record of developing and using alternatives.

As a Health Minister in April 2002, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath set out in full for the first time the Government’s policy on the use of animals in medical research. Two years later, at the first Coalition for Medical Progress parliamentary reception, my ministerial colleague Lord Warner of Brockley spoke about why research using animals is essential. That is a speech to which I can refer the hon. Gentleman. The Government welcome and support the work of the coalition, which presents data from scientists engaged in biomedical research in order to explain how animals help research on the causes of disease and enable new treatments to be developed. The coalition communicates with a range of audiences, including nurses.

I shall touch on some of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. He said that he understands the position taken by some people who believe that it is defensible to say that animals should not be used to benefit humans. I believe that the vast majority of people would find that position difficult to sympathise with or agree with and it becomes completely unacceptable when combined with violence and intimidation against those who do not hold a similar view. He was right to say that it is important not to suggest that the groups that indulge in such extremism are in any way representative of the huge number of people in this country who care about animal welfare, and it is right that we make that distinction here today. There is a long and respectable tradition in this country of campaigning on such matters and many people take a strong personal interest in them, but there is a major difference between wanting a reduction in the unnecessary suffering by animals and those who understand the need for medical research for the benefit of humankind. It is important that the hon. Gentleman put that distinction on the record.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point about press releases. It is important to make the case whenever we have the opportunity. I will not flinch from doing so and I do not believe that a single ministerial colleague in the Department will flinch from doing so. The hon. Gentleman may have given us a useful jab and he was right to say that we should carry on making the case clearly and unequivocally.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was a volunteer for the HIV vaccine, which demonstrates a personal commitment, and I want to make a brief comment about the Northwick Park issue which is commanding so much attention at the moment. People have asked whether that demonstrates that animal testing is
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unnecessary because it did not prevent the incident. There will be further announcements in due course about the reasons for what happened—and some expert work is necessary—but it demonstrated the danger of putting people into early clinical trials when there has not been sufficient animal research. That makes the point that animal testing is important; it does not make the reverse case. It would be a dangerous world if people were not confident about going into such trials and it is very important, if we are to maintain public confidence in clinical trials, that we continue to use animal testing when necessary.

Dr. Harris: I back the Minister’s support for the idea that press releases on clinical trials should refer to animal research and I hope that it is fair to say that there is now Government support for funders to ask for or even to insist that researchers do that.

Will the Minister use the last two minutes to refer to the labelling of medicine packs because I know that many people want to hear his views?

Andy Burnham: I will. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments and have read the transcript of his interview on the “Today” programme. He is making an interesting proposal. I know that it has been discussed before and I have an open mind about it. I am prepared to consider the issues further, but I urge him to recognise that a cost-benefit analysis is required because there are risks—it has been suggested that some people may be deterred from taking medicines—and there is a financial cost to the NHS of doing so. There may be other risks in following such a course.

At the same time, the benefit that the hon. Gentleman wants is public confidence and acceptance of the need for animal testing so there is a benefit, but I hope that he recognises that there may be dangers also. The matter should be considered in the round before a firm commitment can be given one way or another. I do not have a closed mind on the issue and if he wants to do further work and to engage us in further debate, I am happy to do so. However, the matter is not as straightforward as it may seem initially, although I am not saying that I have a real desire or a closed mind.

In the short time remaining, I want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on the debate. He mentioned young people, who are an important audience for the issues that we have discussed today. We would do well to think more about how we can communicate some of the messages that we are sharing today with that audience. I believe that most young people would accept the position that we are outlining, but let us communicate with them.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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