This article is part of our special report The way forward to an animal-free science.
Policymakers have the responsibility to shift the debate about alternatives to animal testing, moving away from the current narrative which pits safety risks for humans against animal ethics, an MEP has told EURACTIV.
A strong EU policy for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes was put forward 10 years ago now. However, animals are still required to be used systematically for testing chemicals and in clinical trials, the European Commission has shown in a recent report.
Finnish lawmaker Sirpa Pietikäinen from centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) has been a lawmaker in the European Parliament since 2008 and has always been deeply engaged in the animal welfare cause.
“I take my role very seriously on this issue as I’m in a privileged position,” she told EURACTIV referring to the fact she is in constant contact with scientists who are developing and using alternative methodologies such as stem cells and artificial organs.
She argued that it is up to policymakers to take the discussion on animal-free science to the public and media as they have access to this sort of first-hand knowledge, unlike many in the wide public.
Citing her talks with patient movements, she said she found that they raise legitimate concerns about the risks of preventing new research in fields like cancer treatment or neurodegenerative diseases by banning animal testing.
But she maintains there is a fallacy in thinking that an animal-free science would put at risk the development of pioneering cures, as animal testing itself has proved to be quite ineffective.
“You spend time and money on developing medicines that seem to be working on animals, but then it turns up they do not work in human beings as supposed,” she stressed.
Things are moving fast
Pietikäinen is also vice-chairwoman of the European Parliament’s Animals in science working group, which advocates the transition to non-animal science.
“Our goals are pretty wide and include mapping alternatives to animal testing and better solutions from both the point of view of costs and human health safety,” she said.
As things develop rapidly in this area, the group is also monitoring progress in the validation process of these alternative methods. Specifically, they are also focused on what the barriers are to the uptake of better and reliable animal-free tests.
In this regard, she acknowledged the merits of the European Partnership for Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing (EPAA) for playing a crucial part in raising her awareness about the ineffectiveness of animal testing and the safety of the alternative methods.
The EPAA platform, which turns 15 this year, brings together the EU executive with the private sector to promote the development of alternative approaches to animal testing.
“If you compare the current situation to the one we had 15 years ago, an enormous amount of work has been done in increasing in pushing the animal-free science agenda forward,” she said.
Pietikäinen also welcomed the new EPAA action plan for the next five years, as it takes into consideration the potential scientific breakthroughs that might come in that period.
“I expect some food for thought for the political debate from that plan,” she said.
“History is on our side”
Asked about the need to review the mandate of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), she said that this is not the first problem to deal with.
“How to interpret the regulation for evaluating and authorising chemicals (REACH) has to be addressed instead,” she added.
Although the REACH regulation introduced a ban on animal testing, the EU legislator has not excluded testing on animals as a last resort.
According to Pietikäinen, there may well be cases where REACH requirements could be interpreted in such a way that animal testing would be required for workers’ safety or other reasons.
“As regulators, we need to ‘clear’ this unclarity,” she said.
In the recently unveiled Chemicals Strategy, the EU executive has also stressed the need for innovating the chemical risk assessment in a bid to reduce dependency on animal testing.
For Pietikäinen, the Commission’s proposal might night to pass through some amendments aiming to speed up the pace of moving away from animal testing.
By 2018, over 2.2 million animals had been used in new tests for REACH registrations. The Commission has recently warned that tests on animals are still used in areas such as skin irritation and serious eye damage, where alternative methods have reached regulatory acceptance.
Pietikäinen also called for the EU to push forward the animal-free science agenda globally, suggesting the promotion of a UN convention that recognises alternatives to animal testing as a global standard.
“This is the direction where we need to be moving and science, history and ethics are on our side,” she concluded.