Europe moved on Tuesday towards setting strict limits on scientific experiments on animals, with representatives of the EU nations approving the move.
The agreed text, released Tuesday, speaks of the need for "strengthening the protection of animals whilst allowing research to continue playing a key role in the fight against diseases."
It still requires the backing of the European parliament, likely to happen in September, before the law is officially adopted.
Under the new rules experiments on great apes such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans will be prohibited altogether. There is a caveat that would allow member states to approve "exceptionally" the use of great apes if it is essential for the survival of the species itself or because of an unexpected outbreak of a life-threatening or debilitating disease in humans.
Also under the draft rules, the 27 EU nations would have to ensure that experiments with animals are replaced "wherever possible" by an alternative method which is "scientifically satisfactory".
Pain and suffering to be limited
Also the number of animals used in projects will have to be reduced to a minimum "without compromising the quality of results," as the search for cures for cancers, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease etc continues.
The new rules will also limit the degree of pain and suffering caused to animals to the minimum.
As a general rule, animals taken from the wild will not be allowed to be used in experiments.
The measure was formally agreed without debate by education ministers, with only the German delegation abstaining, according to the European Commission. At the moment some 12 million animals are used each year in scientific experiments in the EU.
According to experts, current scientific knowledge does not allow a complete phase-out of animal experimentation, the commission said.
The draft law describes animals as "sentient creatures" with "an intrinsic value in themselves which must be respected."
Law a step forward, but not good enough
Last year the European Union banned the testing of animals for developing cosmetics, except for long-running toxicology tests which will be banned altogether in 2013.
The Eurogroup for Animals said the proposed law change was a step forward but "does not fully reflect the high level of public concern about the use of animals in experiments and does not go far enough in promoting the use of non-animal alternatives."
"We believe that the compromise reached between the EU institutions is a positive step forward but still not the U-turn needed to adequately protect animals used in research," said the group's director Sonja Van Tichelen.
Animal rights activists see too many caveats and possible loopholes in the text, in particular a "safeguard clause" which allows rules in the future law to be bypassed where "a member state has justifiable grounds for believing that action is essential."
That clause was included to appease European officials who fear the laws are too strict.
At the same time the European proposals allow an EU nation to impose its own tougher rules on animal experimentation. - (Sapa, May 2010)