Animal testing is not a subject many of us are comfortable talking about at the best of times, and certainly not right now.
The construction company Montpellier Group said last week that it would halt building work on Oxford University's new research laboratory, which will use animals for experiments. Over the past couple of months, animal rights extremists have targeted Montpellier's employees and shareholders. Montpellier had maintained it would not give in to bullying tactics, and the Government and industry groups made supportive noises - but did nothing practical to help the company. In the end, the pressure was too much to bear.
Oxford University says it is in talks with more than one building contractor to take over from Montpellier, but not surprisingly, will not name names. The laboratory, which is due to be completed at the end of next year, could still be built.
Huntingdon Life Sciences, the animal testing company forced to relist in the United States after its shareholders, advisers and lenders were targeted, still runs its original facility in Cambridgeshire, where animal testing is carried out as before. The intimidation tactics have not led to a mass exodus from the UK of pharmaceutical or biotech companies that carry out animal testing - yet. But the speed with which companies roll over and give in to extremists, and the lack of protection they receive, will hardly encourage more pharmaceutical R&D to be based in the UK.
The pharmaceutical industry has put a lot of effort into trying to win the ethical debate, explaining to the public why animal testing is necessary - with limited success. Possibly because of the controversial nature of vivisection, and conscious of its public image of mega-rich "Big Pharma", it has not pressed the business case for animal testing. It should. The impact on the pharmaceutical industry, and the economy at large, if animal rights activists succeeded in driving vivisection out of the UK would be huge.
Some argue that vivisection is not necessary at all. It is possible, in theory, to split animal testing from other parts of R&D, but this would be expensive and impractical. Scientists maintain that it would be unethical to sell drugs that have not already been tested on animals, and that computer simulations are no substitute for experimenting on organisms. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry says that removing animal testing would have a major impact on overall R&D. "Animal testing is a vital part of research," says ABPI spokesman Richard Lay. If experiments on animals no longer took place in the UK, it is likely they would just be moved somewhere else where controls and regulations designed to minimise suffering to animals would be more lax.
Even the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (Frame) argues that a complete ban would have devastating consequences.
Dr Robert Combes, the science manager at Frame, says: "It would have a dramatic effect on the UK-based companies and would …