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Last Updated: Friday, 30 July 2004, 00:20 GMT 01:20 UK
Pharma firms take on the extremists
By Mary Hennock
BBC News Online business reporter

Animal rights demonstrators
Lab tests on animals stir strong passions

The battle is heating up between animal rights activists and drug companies over whether using live animals in laboratory research is dumb brutality or smart science.

UK Home Secretary David Blunkett has promised wider police powers to curb violence against drug firms, their staff, suppliers, bankers, accountants and shareholders.

The move comes at a time when the pharmaceutical industry says it faces a wave of violence which is jeopardising the health of Britain's economy and its medical research.

But industry lobbyists have already made clear they would prefer stronger measures than Mr Blunkett is ready to offer.

Surgical strike?

"Our fear is that if the Home Office continues to tinker with legislation we're going to be in the same situation in a couple of years," says Barbara Davies, spokesperson for the Research Defence Society, which represents scientists in industry and colleges.

Mr Blunkett's widely leaked plans would strengthen existing laws but the industry wants him to warn off the animal rights movement's violent minority with a new law.

If you go out and talk to people out there, they don't want these industries in this country
Greg Avery, Shac spokesman

"We want it to be specific for protesting against animal research," says RDS director Dr Mark Matfield, drawing parallels with laws against football hooliganism and racist violence.

"Britain has to do more with its police and judicial system because we are being terrorised," Jean-Paul Garnier, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, the UK's biggest drug-maker with global sales of 21bn ($38bn) last year, has said.

Jean-Pierre Garnier
Mr Garnier says security fears are driving away investors

In a blizzard of media interviews this week, Mr Garnier said investors were steering clear of Britain because of high levels of extremist behaviour by animal rights activists.

Home visits

Attacks of all kinds are rising, adding security costs of 30m to 70m a year to research firms' bills, says the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

Between April and June, it says 24 companies severed ties with UK-based commercial or college research facilities.

ABPI members reported 27 incidents of damage to property, two to public property and 20 to company property. This compares to combined tally of 30 incidents in the second quarter of 2003.

Damage to cars - listed separately - averaged 5,000 per vehicle in 46 incidents between April and June, up from 34 attacks in the first three months of 2004.

Activists are increasingly targeting workers at home with noisy late night protests, and widening the net to the staff of suppliers, an ABPI spokesman says.

One favoured tactic, he says, is to "turn up at their local pub [and] put pressure on the landlord to bar them".

All this financial and emotional disruption is the work of "maybe 100" people, says Ms Davies.

Big business

So how economically important is the UK's pharmaceutical industry?

Animal testing

About 65,000 people work in it, and a quarter of a million more jobs depend on it, ABPI data shows.

Drug-makers added 2bn to Britain's economy last year. They generated exports of 7bn and a trade surplus of 2.3bn, the third highest after power generation and oil products.

About one third of pharma jobs are sophisticated research posts. The industry claims a major role in backing universities and medical training. Dr Mattfield acknowledges there is little evidence of a brain drain.

Opposing views

Drug-makers insist that new medicines cannot be safely developed without testing on animals.

The current law agrees, though animal rights campaigners do not.

"There is increasing evidence that animal research is holding back science," says Wendy Higgins, campaign director at the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

Mouse in cardboard tube, BBC
Animal testing of new drugs is compulsory

Under a 1986 law, testing on animals requires three Home Office licences - for the institution, the scientist and the project.

They must outline the potential benefits and prove there is no alternative. Random inspections and on-site vets are mandatory.

Animal rights activists say the law is full of holes. "You can get a licence off the Home Office to do anything you want inside a vivisection lab," says Greg Avery, press spokesman for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac).

Hard hitting

Shac pioneered the tactic of targeting suppliers with its campaign against test lab Huntingdon Life Sciences which led the firm's bankers, auditors and insurers to withdraw their services.

Mr Avery says Shac has no connection with violence at HLS, which included an assault on the firm's chief executive, and defends action against suppliers as "a very novel, successful technique".

Certainly, Shac's approach has been widely copied. Building firm Montpellier Group this month abandoned a lab contract for Oxford University after its shares fell 19% in one day when animal rights campaigners wrote to shareholders threatening to publicise their investments.

The ABPI's campaign for extra powers and a new law is "hysteria", says Mr Avery.

"If you go out and talk to people out there, they don't want these industries in this country," he says.

"It's a concerted campaign by animal researchers to perpetuate the image of animal rights campaigners as terrorists," says the BUAV's Ms Higgins.

"They know the majority of campaigners are peaceful and lawful."

The industry is likely to win changes to anti-stalking laws to make it easier for firms to get restraining orders to protect staff are likely to be met, along with tougher penalties for trespass on research sites.

But the government's unhappy experience over fox-hunting suggests it will steer clear of introducing a law on animal-rights extremism.

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