Ending animal testing in New Zealand – a response from scientists

An opinion piece in the NZ Herald this week challenged New Zealand to lead the world by banning animal testing outright.

This push follows on the heels of a political controversy over proposed  safety testing methods for new “legal highs” or unregulated emerging recreational drugs.

On Monday, after a report on toxicity assessments for novel psychoactive substances was made public,  Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne ruled out use of the median lethal dose (LD50) testing regime for these drugs, citing concerns over animal ethics in this context.

The Australia NZ Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Testing (ANZCCART), approached the SMC with the following response to the call to ban animal testing, outlining the reasons they continue to support animal testing in this country.

Animal testing in NZ

The article by Catriona MacLennan challenges NZ to go animal testing free: is this really possible?

The short answer is: not yet. 

Experience has taught society that the health and safety of the chemicals we use, as medicines, in food and in our environment, is important.

Errors such as the use of thalidomide, or DDT, teach us that we must learn about the actions of chemicals before we use them on our farms or to treat disease (animal and human). Animals are used in these tests, but a range of other systems are used as well.

Testing and research begins in vitro or in silico (in a test tube or using computer modelling) before cultures of human, animal or bacterial cells are used. All these systems can tell scientists and regulators a great deal about the likely toxicity of a chemical and how it might act. This is the first principle that guides the use of animals in research, teaching and testing – replacement. If replacement options cannot adequately ensure environmental, animal or human safety then the principles of reduction and refinement are used. These three Rs (Replace, Reduce, Refine) underlie all legislation and advocacy for animal use in science and regulation in NZ.

Only once basic in vitro research has been conducted will animal work be authorised by an animal ethics committee (AEC). For human medicines, society expects a high degree of safety and so animals are used to assess the toxicity of chemicals before they are licensed, in vitro models are just not good enough yet. The degree of testing and what tests are conducted is determined by a range of factors.

Where possible authorities seek to use existing evidence to reduce the number of animals that are used (the second R – Reduction). Where animals must be used the tests used are carefully selected to minimise harm i.e. Refinement. This means that the LD50 test would only be used if there were absolutely no alternative (generally there is). Instead non-lethal doses are given and the animals are monitored for signs of sickness and disease. Pain is always treated and the animals are closely monitored for stress or illness. We will not tolerate needless animal suffering for human gain, but we must balance animal welfare with human, animal and environmental safety.

It is not reasonable, yet, to replace animal testing in NZ or anywhere else. But, there is huge support to achieve this goal.

The information available from National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee on the use of animals in NZ shows us that research and testing on mice, rats and sheep has decreased since 2010. The quoted increased use of animals actually reflects a greater degree of research being carried out on animals such as cattle, chickens and deer.

Many of these animals, especially chickens and cattle were used in animal husbandry experiments designed to improve their living conditions. Such experiments do not typically compromise animal welfare. Better reporting of the use of these species plays a big part in explaining the sharp increase in the numbers of animals being used. The low invasiveness of the tests conducted on cattle is reflected in the fact that 97% survived the research or teaching procedure that they were subjected to.

Overall, the use of animals such as rodents in medical research has fallen, but this reduction has been offset to a small degree by increases in the number of these animals being used to develop alternatives to animal tests and to improve animal husbandry. The overall rate of mortality of animals being used in research is decreasing year on year and this highlights the continuing uptake of alternatives to animal testing by scientists and teachers.