The government is determined to ensure the expansion of animal research, arguing that investment, jobs and medical breakthroughs depend on it. It's a view that the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, and a coalition of powerful drug companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Pfizer, share--as does the Home Secretary, David Blunkett. In the face of protests that have halted the construction of an Oxford laboratory where animal experiments were to take place, Blunkett is proposing new laws to crack down on "animal rights extremists". He seems more concerned about the harassment of a handful of researchers than about the industrial-scale infliction of pain and death on more than two million living, feeling animals, including 4,000 experiments on non-human primates last year.
Yet some scientists doubt that vivisection can provide accurate models of human diseases and treatments at all. They point out that drug therapies can have vastly different effects on different species. Strychnine, for example, kills people but not monkeys, and belladonna is deadly to humans yet harmless to rabbits.
We have witnessed many tragic consequences of blind faith in animal testing. The anti-rheumatic drug Opren killed 76 people in Britain and caused serious illness to 3,500 others, despite having been declared safe after seven years of animal research. Likewise, thousands of people with heart trouble suffered adversely after taking the animal-vetted drug Eraldin. Subsequent experimentation has failed to find a single species that reacts to Eraldin in the same way as humans do. Undeterred, the big pharmaceutical corporations have exploited public fears concerning life-threatening diseases such as cancer and HIV to demand more money for animal experiments and to oppose animal welfare legislation restricting their activities.
The battle against HIV provides a classic example of the pitfalls of vivisection. Protease inhibitor drugs have made a major contribution to cutting the death rate; enabling many people with the virus to live a more or less normal life. HIV infection has been transformed from a death sentence into a manageable condition.
The initial development of these highly effective anti-HIV therapies was, however, seriously compromised by reliance on animal testing. In one of the biggest medical scandals of recent times, there was a four-year delay in the clinical trials of protease-inhibitor treatments. This may have contributed to the needless deaths of tens of thousands of people worldwide.
In 1989, researchers at the pharmaceutical giant Merck, Sharp & Dohme (MSD) were working on a promising protease drug. Development was going well until the scientists decided to test the new therapy on dogs and rats. They all died. According MSD's former vice-president of worldwide basic research, Bennett M Shapiro, the company "stopped …