'Hurting sensitive animals against their will and bringing them harm is a choice'

Interview with Janneke Hogervorst, scientific consultant at PETA UK. All the statements below were made by the interviewee and cannot be attributed to the Transition Programme for Innovation without the use of animals (TPI) partnership. Our website showcases all relevant views.

Foto Janneke Hogervorst
Janneke Hogervorst, scientific consultant at PETA UK

What is PETA’s opinion on the use of laboratory animals for the benefit of human health?

Of course PETA supports boosting human health, but the organisation believes it is not our right to use other sensitive animals for this purpose.

Despite performing experiments on living animals for many dozens of years, there are still illnesses we cannot cure, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. The development process for medicinal products is highly problematic, as developing a new medicine can take 10-15 years on average and can easily cost more than 2 billion dollars. 95 percent of the products fail once they are tested on humans and this is often mainly caused by the animal testing that preceded human testing. And then there are the products that would have been suitable for people, but are not further developed because they did not work in animals or caused side effects.

I am convinced that biomedical and AI technologies that use human materials and data can speed the process along much faster than unreliable animal testing can. We know that many medicines only work on a small number of patients or cause serious side effects in certain patients. Animal-free techniques make it possible to study patient-specific responses to the treatment.

If we truly want to work to prevent, treat and cure illnesses, we need better ways of accomplishing our goals, with humane and animal-free methods relevant for humans.

When animal testing moves abroad, the animals in question may be worse off there.

There is little evidence to support this idea. But more importantly, should we continue with animal testing that does not work because we think it will otherwise be done abroad? Then there will never be progress in the world. Ending animal testing for ethical and scientific reasons, sets a good example for others.

Are the ‘no, unless’ principle and the 3Rs insufficient in offering protection to laboratory animals?

Yes. These are not resulting in a decline in animal testing. By focusing on replacing, reducing and refining, the emphasis is on developing alternatives to animal testing, ignoring how poorly animal testing can predict what will happen in humans. By using the term ‘replace’, animal testing remains the gold standard. Finding alternatives to animal testing could have the opposite effect, because practices might only change once those alternatives have been found.

We need a paradigm shift in which we should first take stock of the scientific questions that need to be answered and then use human-relevant methods that do not use animals.

Why is the number of animal tests not declining in the Netherlands?

Despite the solid ambition from 2016 to phase out animal testing and become the frontrunner of animal-free innovation by 2025, policymakers are currently not showing a sense of urgency. The TPI programme indicates that the transition to animal-free science and testing will take many decades and that it is unclear if a decline in the number of animal tests will be visible at an earlier stage. This means that decades of animal and human lives, money and time, will be wasted on animal testing that benefits nobody.

The transition will be driven by forward-thinking scientists, financiers, regulators and policymakers. Not by researchers who continue to claim that their area of expertise could probably never do without the use of animal testing. They are putting the breaks on the transition.

There are many obstacles to the transition that are currently not being tackled. There are no targets with specific steps to achieve them. Animal testing is still the gold standard and is justified based on the assumption that what happens to animals is a reflection of what happens to humans, but growing evidence shows that this is usually not the case. If you really want to force the transition, more funding will be required. We also see that animals are still being used in experiments and education for which suitable non-animal methods are already available. A new national plan is needed.

What should this plan entail?

Firstly, more effective regulations on animal testing. No approval for animal testing if human application is unclear or if there are methods available that do not require animals. Funding applications for research using animals should be assessed by experts in animal-free methods. Also publish the complete project applications and retrospective assessments of animal tests.

Secondly, a scientific strategy needs to be devised that takes into account the results of a societal discussion about the necessity of animal testing with questions such as: What would happen if we stopped using animal testing? What would we lose and what would we gain? Which scientific answers can no longer be answered? And how much of a problem is that?

Thirdly, I advocate stronger shared leadership of TPI and higher investments, by the five ministries involved, in close contact with experts, Parliament, the public and animal rights organisations. TPI is now being managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV), due to the fact that animal welfare is part of the Ministry’s portfolio, using outdated 3R policy to limit animal suffering. But TPI should be challenging existing practices: better science and better safety tests without animal testing. And that is the policy area of other ministries.

Will some animal tests continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future?

The word ‘necessary’ is often used when a specific research question cannot or cannot yet be answered using an animal-free method. First of all, there is technically no necessity for animal testing if it is not prescribed by law. Of course we want to stay healthy by creating preventive strategies and treatments and by protecting ourselves against chemicals, but hurting sensitive animals against their will and bringing them harm is a choice.

Secondly, the ‘necessity’ of animal testing should primarily be based on the question of whether it is necessary to promote health in society, and of course this is only true if it actually leads to results. This should be looked at in more depth. Last summer, the House of Representatives of the States General passed a motion asking to assess the relevance of animal experiments. This will be crucial.