7 April 2023
In the year of the onset of the pandemic, many scientific projects that had planned to use animals were cancelled or postponed, though a number of new studies involving animals were carried out for projects studying COVID-19.
The European Commission has published its statistical report on the use of animals for scientific purposes in the 27 EU Member States and Norway in 2020. This is the first year that data from the United Kingdom – a major user of animals – are no longer included. Four of the 12 countries that saw an increase in the number of animals used, attribute the increase to additional research projects related to COVID-19.
In 2020, 7,938,064 animals were used for the first time in research, testing and education in the EU-27 and Norway. Although this represents a decrease of 7.5% compared to 2019, multiple factors relating to the COVID-19 pandemic makes comparisons with previous years difficult. National measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic were at least partly responsible for the decrease in the number of animals used for scientific purposes in 11 Member States. 1.8 million animals used for scientific purposes were genetically altered, including mice, zebrafish and other species of fish, rats, amphibians, domestic fowl, rabbits, and pigs.
Another 686,628 animals were reported to be used for the creation and maintenance of genetically altered (GA) animal lines, representing an increase of 4% from 2019. In contrast to previous years, marmosets and tamarins were not reported to be used for the creation of new GA animal lines in 2020. It should be noted, however, that animals used for the maintenance of GA animal lines not displaying a harmful phenotype or not genotyped using an invasive method remain outside the scope of the annual statistical reporting. Also, the European Commission acknowledges that the accurate reporting of animals involved in the maintenance of existing GA lines continues to be particularly challenging.
The report describes considerable new increases in uses of many species. The use of horses, donkeys and cross-breeds increased by 176%, and the use of cats continued the upward trend, increasing by a further 15%. The use of hamsters and other carnivores increased by 66% and 59% respectively. The use of dogs and non-human primates, however, decreased by 16% and 10% respectively. There was also a significant decrease of 90% in the use of cephalopods, which had seen a major increase in 2019.
The main species used for scientific purposes were mice, fish, rats and birds, which together represented 91% of the total number of animals. As in previous years, more than 70% of animals were used for research purposes, of which approximately 40% were used for basic research and 30% for translational and applied research. A further 17% of uses of animals were for regulatory purposes to satisfy legal requirements. The percentage of uses that caused ‘severe’ suffering remained around 10% (796,750 uses).
Non-human primates continue to be used in the largest numbers to satisfy regulatory requirements for medicinal products for human use (59%), and also for routine production, mostly for blood based products (13%), for studying human infectious disorders (11%), and for other basic research (4%). 81% of the non-human primates used for scientific purposes were born in Asia and Africa, before being transported to laboratories in the EU. Although the Directive encourages movement towards only using non-human primates who have been bred, ultimately, in self-sustaining colonies, the proportion of non-human primates coming from self-sustaining colonies is still low, and decreased by 15% from the previous year. However, inaccurate reporting of information, and a misunderstanding of the term ‘self-sustaining colony’ may have resulted in some fluctuation in numbers over time.
The use of an animal in any procedure where a validated alternative method, that either avoids the use of animals altogether, or reduces their use and suffering, will always be of particular concern. Nearly 42,000 mice were used in 2020 for the production of monoclonal antibodies using the mouse ascites method, mainly in France (95%). The continued use of this method is of serious concern, even more so as the figure actually represents an increase of 12% from the previous year, and because alternative approaches are available to replace the mouse ascites method. A more positive trend is seen in the uses of rabbits for pyrogenicity tests, which decreased by 21%, but it is clear that more efforts should be made to speed up the transition to non-animal methods.
As in previous years, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark remain the EU Member States with the highest number of animals used for scientific purposes, with more than 5.3 million animals used between them in 2020. However, a recent opinion poll carried out in these 8 Member States highlighted the public’s strong desire to accelerate the full replacement of animals used for scientific purposes and transition to non-animal science.