Animal rights activists target transport sector

Tom Feilden
Science correspondent, Today

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Scientists are warning that a new campaign by animal rights activists - aimed at the companies involved in the transport of laboratory animals - threatens to undermine research into new cures and treatments for disease.

One by one airlines, ports, ferry companies and handling agents have been targeted on social media sites and bombarded with letters complaining about their involvement in the trade.

The tactic has been remarkably successful: the national carrier British Airways was one of the first to back out, followed more recently by P&O, SeaFrance, DFDS Seaways and many of the smaller carriers. An investigation by the Today programme has revealed that the last major ferry operator willing to transport animals destined for research, Stena, pulled out in January.

Only 1% of the animals used in laboratory experiments are imported from overseas, but scientists say even this limited trade is vital because they need access to the best specialist breeding facilities in Europe and around the world.

If they can't get the specific strains they need - mostly genetically engineered mice - researchers say the UK will struggle to maintain its position at the forefront of bio-medical research, and ultimately patients will suffer.

"When only a few companies were affected that wasn't a game changer" says Professor Dominic Wells from the Royal Veterinary College, "but it's now getting to the point where enough companies have been intimidated that we can see a potentially massive impact on the collaborative nature of research, and which will slow research progress".

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image captionP & O say they do not carry animals for medical research

The effective isolation of British research facilities represents a potentially serious blow to the country's standing as a major player in the life sciences sector according to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. The life sciences sector generates some £50 billion a year and employs more than 165,000 highly skilled workers. But that won't last if researchers can't get the animal models they need to study disease and develop new drugs.

"It's a major problem, a problem of great significance" according to the ABPI's chief executive Steven Whitehead, "this research must not be allowed to go anywhere else. We have the intellectual capacity, we have the industrial capacity, we have a supportive government committed to life sciences, and we want this discovery work to take place here".

'Commercial solution'

A big part of the problem is that the UK is an island, presenting a series of bottle-necks or pressure points that the former science minister Lord Drayson says animal rights activists have been quick to target.

"The extremists have been very clever at identifying weak links in the chain," he says "and to target the people at those weak links to stop the process as a whole. The important thing now is for the government to get together with the transport industry and to agree to support the life sciences so that companies can't be picked off one at a time".

None of the animal rights activists involved in the campaign wanted to talk to us, and nor did the transport companies. P&O did release a statement last night confirming that they would not carry animals destined for use in medical research.

The Medical Research Council, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Wellcome Trust and the Laboratory Animal Breeders Association released a statement this morning pointing out that it takes years to breed specific strains of animals for research purposes. If sharing such animals was stopped then individual institutes would have to breed their own lines, requiring the unnecessary use of many more animals over successive generations.

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image captionScience Minister David Willetts believes animal research is 'essential'

Earlier this year the prime minister referred to the life sciences as the "jewel in the crown" of the UK economy. Speaking on the programme this morning the Science Minister David Willetts said the government was working closely with both the transport sector and the pharmaceutical industry to try and find a solution.

"What we're trying to achieve, with a new code of practice for transport and the transport sector as a whole seeing their responsibilities, I still hope we can reach a solution which means we can carry on having world-class research in Britain," he explained.The Science Minister David Willetts said that "the government is working with the life sciences industry and transport sector to tackle this problem. A cross-Whitehall group has been working since January to bring together the pharmaceutical and transport industries to broker a commercial solution. We will continue to work to secure a way forward that ensures the highest standards in animal transportation and continuing success of research in the UK.

"The use of animals in research remains essential to develop new treatments and drugs, improve our understanding of disease and prove the safety and effectiveness of drugs and chemicals before they go forward for human trials.

"The UK benefits from one of the most stringent regulatory environments regarding the use of animals in scientific research. Animal testing is only approved if there is a very strong scientific case and where no practicable alternatives exist."