Kenya’s national airline – Kenya Airways – made headlines when it announced that it Stop transporting monkeys for animal research. This follows an accidental road accident in Pennsylvaniain the United States, which involved a truck transporting monkeys bred in Mauritius for laboratory experiments in the United States.
Following the accident, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) US, an animal rights group, contacted Kenya Airways urging them to reconsider transporting animals, advancing their view that animal testing is a cruel industry.
Read more: Macaque monkeys of Mauritius: an invasive alien species, and a major export for research
Such an incident is indeed tragic. But if you consider the number of people who would have died were it not for the existence of drugs and new medical technologies developed through animal research, then ending animal research could lead to a more tragic outcome in the longer term.
Most countries do animal research, maybe not very small countries or very poor countries. There is a national ban on animal testing for cosmetics across the European Union, Israel, Norway, as well as India. But animal testing for other reasons is still widely accepted.
Most of the animals used come from commercial farms – one is Jackson Lab in the USA. Other sources include specialty breeders and large breeding centers that can supply genetically modified animals for specific research. Animal testing facilities themselves may also breed animals.
Scientists and policy makers to share the long-term goal of reducing the use of animals in scientific research and, if possible, even stopping it. It is an ambitious goal. For this to happen, animal-free methods need to be developed and validated before they can become a new standard.
Animal-free innovations have been developed for certain areas of biomedical research, such as toxicology. However, most parties recognize that at present not all research questions can be answered using animal-free methods alone.
Based on decades of human brain research, which involves the use of animals, it is clear to us that – for the foreseeable future – there remains a critical need for animal models to understand health and disease and to develop drugs.
It is animal research that provides researchers with unique insights into how humans and animals function. Perhaps more than in any other area of biomedical research, whole living animals are needed to understand brain function, behavior and cognition.
Behavior and cognition, the final outputs of a brain organ, cannot be imitated using all existing technologies without animals. We currently only have do not understand the brain well enough to make solutions without animals.
Another striking and very recent example which has shown the current need for animal research is the Covid-19 pandemic. The exit from the pandemic required the development of a functional vaccine. Researchers stunned the world when they made targeted vaccines available within a year. This, however, relied heavily on the use of animals to test the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.
A key fact that often remains unseen is that the rules and regulations governing the conduct of animal research are, in comparison, perhaps even stricter and more regulated, for example by the Animal Welfare Act in the United States and European Convention for the protection of vertebrate animals used for experimental or other scientific purposes in Europe. That, for example, in the food and entertainment industry, although regulations are in place here too, such as government rules for the treatment of animals to protect their health and welfare.
Should it be banned?
In the world as we know it today, animal research is still generally accepted as part of society. There are many important reasons why laboratory animal research is still needed:
Know the biological processes in animals and humans.
To know the cause of diseases.
Developing new treatments and vaccines and evaluating their effects.
Develop methods that can prevent disease in animals and humans.
Develop methods for the management of animals such as pests but also for the conservation of endangered species.
Of course, many, including animal researchers, are optimistic that one day animal experiments will no longer be necessary to obtain the essential scientific results. However, the situation is that for many research questions related to human and animal health, we still need animals.
Until we can replace animals, we need to focus more on transparency and animal welfare, for the benefit of animals as well as science. Awareness and financial support in this regard at government level is essential to enable animal researchers to always strive to achieve the highest level of animal welfare possible.