1. The Netherlands planned to exit animal studies
In 2016, the Netherlands National Committee for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes (NCad) published a recommendation to transition to research without the use of animal experiments. It called for a gradual reduction and planned exit by 2025, particularly for animal experiments in the context of regulatory safety testing, i.e. safety tests required by law for chemical, foodstuffs, ingredients, pesticides and medical devices and vaccines. In the aftermath of its publication, the recommendation by the NCad was repeatedly cited as a“masterplan” to stop animal experiments in the Netherlands –wrongly, as has emerged.
2. An exit is not practicable
The German science initiative “Tierversuche verstehen” addressed the NCad report in depth and analysed additional documents from Dutch ministries. It emerged from this analysis that an exit of research from the use of animal experiments in the Netherlands was neither planned nor possible. The Netherlands also abandoned the 2025 deadline for an exit in the regulatory domain completely. In scientific basic research, applied research and educational programmes, an absolute renunciation of animal experiments is now seen as impracticable also by the NCad. For without animal experiments, it is not possible to conduct research into the complex functions of the living organism and the interactions of the various human organs, and thus neither the dangers nor the effects of substances can be tested. The scientific community would therefore be prevented from finding answers to biomedical questions without endangering human lives.
3. A ban would be unethical and put safety standards at risk
In the event of a total ban on animal experiments, two scenarios are conceivable: either there would be an unacceptable fall in safety standards, because medical research in humans would be conducted without preclinical research, which would not be ethically acceptable; or, for the protection of human subjects in clinical trials, medical research would not be carried out and scientific progress would thus be prevented. The Netherlands recognized this dilemma and abandoned the project. The objective of a complete exit was diluted into an intention to promote alternative methods and animal-free innovations, which was absorbed into the 3Rs strategy, according to which pharmaceutical researchers use alternatives to as many animal experiments as possible (Replace), use fewer laboratory animals (Reduce) and keep any stress on the animals to a minimum (Refine). Owing to a lack of alternatives, however, a moratorium on animal experiments is no longer being considered.
4. Outsourcing to countries with lower standards
Innovative methods and technologies have the potential to take science further and allow the number of animal experiments to be reduced. Experts from different disciplines are collaborating to promote the sharing of knowledge with respect to innovations without recourse to animal experiments. Going it alone in the way the NCad proposed for the Netherlands with regard to the animal experiments required by regulatory authorities, carries considerable risks.
5. The 3Rs strategy points the way
The call for a ban on animal experiments is not new. Even in the peak phase of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, petitions were filed with the European Commission in March and April 2020 for a complete ban on animal experiments. One of the arguments put forward by the petitioners to justify this move was that the Netherlands already had a timetable for the abolition of animal experiments. But what the research community had already suspected in the formulation of the exit plan was later confirmed politically: there is no longer any concrete plan in the Netherlands today for abolishing animal experiments. As shown for example by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, animal experiments are essential for research into life-saving therapies or vaccines. And in regulatory safety testing, too, it is only possible to manage without animal experiments if validated, internationally recognized alternatives are available. There can be no binding exit plan for abandoning animal experiments in the foreseeable future, and this is due to the lack of alternatives – not to the lack of will on the part of the research community. In conclusion, it has to be said that the systematic promotion and implementation of the 3Rs principles – Reduce, Replace, Refine – is the effective way to improve the quality of research and the welfare of the animals used.