Tom Pursglove – 2021 Speech on Animal Testing

The speech made by Tom Pursglove, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, in the House of Commons on 16 December 2021.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for securing this important debate and for her kind festive wishes, which are very much reciprocated to her and her family. I am grateful to her and to all colleagues who have raised concerns about this issue in previous debates and in correspondence with Ministers and in various questions for those contributions.

I have the privilege of closing today’s debate on behalf of the Minister responsible for animals in science. In so doing, I would like to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), for closing a Westminster Hall debate on this subject on 25 October. He provided a thorough account of the Government’s position on that occasion, and I hope that I can build on his commentary in my remarks today.

This is an evocative topic. The strength of feeling it generates is entirely understandable and I do not seek to minimise that in any way; I am exceptionally mindful of it. What we absolutely must do when discussing this issue is ensure that our discussions are rooted firmly in the evidence. The use of animals in science lies at the intersection of two important public goods: the benefits to humans, animals and the environment from the use of animals in science; and the UK’s proud history of support for the highest possible standards of animal welfare. I note the hon. Lady’s point that the UK ought to be a world leader. I argue that one of the important contributions that have we made, including when we were a member of the European Union, was that the European directive for the protection of animals used in science was built upon and developed directly on the back of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, so UK legislation was very much at the forefront when it came to shaping safeguards and regulation in this policy space.

The balance between those two public goods is reflected in the UK’s robust regulation of the use of animals in science through a dedicated Act and our strength in science and innovation. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, which I have mentioned, specifies that animals can be used in science only for specific limited purposes where there are no alternatives, and provides protection for these animals through the legal requirement to apply the principles known as the 3Rs—replacement, reduction and refinement. The Government are committed to maintaining robust regulatory standards, and to investing in alternatives to animals. I agree with the hon. Lady that that is very much something that the British people want to see happen, which is why we, as a Government, are committed to the three Rs. When we are considering the ongoing need for the use of animals in science, it is essential to look at the impact that would result if it were not possible. Animal testing and research play a vital role in the understanding of how biological systems work in health and disease. They support the development of new medicines and cutting-edge medical technologies, for humans and animals, and they support the safety and sustainability of our environment. From new vaccines and medicines to transplant procedures, anaesthetics and blood transfusions, animal research has helped us to make life-changing discoveries and advances with enormous benefits for society. Indeed, the development of the covid-19 vaccine, like that of all vaccines, was made possible at least in part because of the use of animals in research.

Animal testing is required by all global medicines regulators, including the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. That testing is essential to protect human health and safety. Without the testing of potential medicines on animals, the development, registration and marketing of new, safe, and effective medicines would not be possible.

Although much research can be done with non-animal models, there are still purposes for which it is essential to use live animals, as the complexity of whole biological systems cannot always be replicated with the use of validated non-animal methodologies. That is especially the case when the safety of humans and animals needs to be ensured. Ours is a nation that rightly gives strong support to animal welfare, and I think it fair to say that it is a country of animal lovers, but let us not confuse the issues. I will be clear: animals are only ever used in science when there is a legally permissible purpose that is for the benefit of humans, animals themselves, or the environment. We authorise the use of animals only when the harms caused to the animals are justified by the likely expected benefits, and when there are no non-animal alternatives. We issue licences only when pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm have been minimised to the degree needed to meet the scientific research objectives. There are, of course, various levels and layers of safeguards in respect of this work.

There are three commonly cited but incorrect statements about the use of animals in science. The first is that the use of animals in science is not necessary because all the benefits can be achieved through the use of non-animal methodologies. The second is that the use of animals in science is not valid or useful primarily because data acquired from animal testing cannot predict the experience of humans or other animals. The third is that many potential medicines fail during development, and that this demonstrates that animal testing is not useful or necessary in drug development.

Let me deal first with the claim that there are alternatives to using animals for all purposes. Although scientific progress has meant that many scientific objectives can be achieved without the use of animals, there are still areas in which that is not possible. One example is the assessment of what is described as the “reproductive toxicity” of a chemical or potential new medicine. That means understanding whether a chemical causes abnormalities in fertility, abnormal development of offspring, or even problems with the fertility of the offspring of those exposed to such a chemical. Although some initial screening tests for that purpose can be performed without the use of animals, animal tests are still necessary for the assessments. Such tests have prevented the further development or marketing of substances that would have had significant negative impacts on fertility or developing embryos.

Let me now deal with the second point. Animal models are constantly improving to become more accurate and predictive, and scientists understand progressively more about which biological systems in which animals offer the most scientifically valid results. Improvements in the understanding of the genomes of animals and humans have been critical to ensuring that scientific research in animals is understood and applied appropriately. Data from animal experiments are constantly fed into computer models that analyse their predictivity and enable scientists to use animal models in increasingly smarter and more predictable ways.

As for the third claim—that many drugs fail during development, and that this shows that animal testing is not useful or necessary—although it is correct to assert that there is a high attrition rate in drug development, there are many reasons why drugs that are assessed as potentially effective and safe in animals do not progress to the market, including commercial reasons. Although there are always some effects in humans that cannot be accurately predicted in animals, animal studies are successfully used to characterise toxic effects of potential medicines with respect to the target organs that may be affected, and to understand how such effects vary with the dose of the substance administered. Additional information can be obtained about whether toxic effects seen can be reversed. This information allows for the identification of factors that can be monitored to assess adverse effects from potential new medicines in their first clinical trials and to establish the first dose that can safely be given in these studies. This is a critical part of protecting the safety of the participants in these studies.

Results from animal studies are therefore used as the basis for extrapolation to indicate and manage possible risks to humans. Thus, animal testing is considered not in a stand-alone context but as part of an integrated set of evidence from a variety of sources, including non-animal testing. Should animal testing not occur, more potential medicines would not progress to market, resources would be spent on potential medicines that would have been excluded through animal testing and the risk to humans in clinical trials would be considerably higher.

I commend the hon. Lady for the passion with which she speaks on these matters and the constructive approach and tone that she has taken in this debate, and which I know she will continue to take in raising these matters. I can assure her that the UK aims to be a world leader in the development of, and access to, new and innovative treatments and technologies. We must continue to protect the health of humans, animals and the environment. To achieve these important outcomes, we will continue—until such time as alternatives are achieved for all purposes—to need to use animals in science, but it is right that robust checks and balances should be in place. Importantly, while achieving these outcomes is critical, this Government also remain committed to robust regulation of the use of animals in science through enforcement of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, and to the funding, development and promotion of non-animal alternatives. That is something I know all of us in this House and in our country want to see delivered.

In closing, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should like to thank you, Mr Speaker and the terrific team of Deputy Speakers for everything that you do. I should also like to thank the Clerks, the staff of the House and of course the Doorkeepers. As the final Minister to speak at the Dispatch Box this year, I also want to say an enormous thank you to the officials who have been working tirelessly across Government, particularly during the challenges of the pandemic, which is of course ongoing. I also want to thank those in my private office and my parliamentary staff, without whom I could not do the work that I do. As a Home Office Minister, I would also like to thank and send my best wishes to our emergency services workers and all those working on the frontline this Christmas and new year. And perhaps most importantly for me, I want to thank the good people of Corby and east Northamptonshire, without whom I would not be here.