Protection for great apes
At long last (they first threatened to do it more than 4 years ago) European Commissioners have published plans for a comprehensive overhaul of the rules governing the use of animals in medical experiments.
And at first glance it looks like a significant tightening of the legislation. Launching the draft directive Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said it was time to "....steer away from testing on animals. Scientific research must focus on finding alternative methods to animal testing".
The top line is certainly the ban on experiments on the great apes - our closest relatives - but the proposal includes important caveats....research involving gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans will still be allowed in exceptional circumstances (such as a serious pandemic threatening human health), and for the conservation of great apes themselves.
There are also stricter regulations governing the use of other non-human primates, measures to phase out the use of wild-caught animals, a significant widening of the directive's scope to include invertebrates; and a whole series of new rules governing the housing and welfare of captive animals in medical facilities.
Underpinning the draft directive is the principle of the 3R's - reducing the number of animals to a minimum, refining experiments to alleviate suffering, and replacing animals with alternatives wherever possible. It's an approach that has been pioneered here in the UK, and some are already referring to the plan as a Europe-wide adoption of "the British model".
That approach was given a cautious welcome by scientists here: The Research Defence Society's Dr Simon Festing called the draft proposals a "very good first stab", but warned against a significant increase in the bureaucratic hurdles facing researchers. The new proposals should promote animal welfare, but not compromise the good science we all want.
More than 12 million animals are used in research across Europe every year, and animal rights campaigners have been lobbying for reform since the original directive came into effect in 1986. Last night the BUAV congratulated the Commission for seizing a 'once in a generation' opportunity, but criticised the loopholes in the ban on great apes, and questioned what commissioners meant by "transitional periods" when it came to the ban on wild-caught monkeys.
And for those who want to see an immediate end to all experiments involving animals of course, this is not so much a 'once in a generation' as a missed opportunity.