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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK
Minister defends animal experiments
Rat, BBC
The majority of experiments are done on rodents
The UK Government has made a strong defence of those scientists who experiment on animals for medical research.

The health minister Lord Hunt said the testing could be "absolutely essential" to the discovery of new treatments.

In a speech setting out the administration's attitude towards animal experimentation, the minister criticised those who had tried to harm or intimidate researchers.

A number of UK institutions and companies where animal testing is conducted - such as Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire - have been the target of sustained protest by animal welfare groups.

'Strict' controls

Lord Hunt said that while the government endorsed the right to democratic protest, it condemned the violent attacks and harassment that had been witnessed in recent years.

"Most medical research does not use animals. Wherever possible, alternatives such as cell cultures, tissues, computers, bacteria and plants are used instead," he said.

"But when animals are used, because there is no other way of advancing medical knowledge, there are - quite rightly - strict controls."

There were almost three million animal procedures in the UK in 2000 - the most up-to-date official figures available.

Higher numbers

More than 80% of these experiments were conducted on mice and rats.

These figures could climb significantly in the coming years as scientists investigate the information coming out of the Human Genome Project - more animals will be needed to work out what our genes do.

And new European proposals on the way animals are kept in EU laboratories and laws aimed at testing the health and environmental impact of new chemicals could push the number of animal procedures higher still.

The animal welfare group Buav (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) criticised the minister's statement.

'Dishonest' position

"Hopes that a Labour government would deliver real change for laboratory animals have long since faded," Michelle Thew, Buav chief executive, told BBC News Online.

"There is a policy vacuum within government - no vision, no strategy, no radical agenda for reform and no recognition of the need to reflect the considerable and growing public concern about animal experiments."

She said the government should be switching funds towards "more humane, cheaper, faster and credible non-animal research techniques".

She said it was dishonest to suggest that medical breakthroughs for human diseases could only come from animal experimentation.

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