Last year saw the lowest number of scientific testing procedures conducted on living animals in Britain in 16 years, despite the research being essential for the development of coronavirus vaccines and treatments.
In 2020, 2.88 million procedures were carried out by researchers at universities, companies and government laboratories, a decrease of 15% on 2019 and the lowest number since 2004.
Data from the Home Office shows around half (1.44 million) of all procedures were experimental, and the other half were for the creation and breeding of genetically altered (GA) animals.
According to the data for England, Scotland and Wales, 92% of procedures (both for experimental and breeding purposes) used mice, fish or rats.
Dr Mark Downs, chief executive of the Royal Society of Biology, said: “The use of animals in research plays an essential role in advancing our knowledge of biology and our understanding of diseases in humans and other animals.
“In the past year, Sars-CoV-2, a coronavirus of zoonotic origin, spread throughout the world, causing a pandemic which affected human health and livelihoods.
“The use of laboratory animals to model Covid-19 disease and to test the efficacy and safety of the vaccines must be highlighted today, as well as the effort carried out by UK life scientists and technicians to understand and counteract the virus.”
Some animals may be used more than once in certain circumstances so the number of procedures carried out in a year does not equal the number of animals used.
More than half (53%) of experimental procedures were for the purpose of basic research most commonly focusing on the immune system, the nervous system, and cancer.
Understanding Animal Research (UAR), an organisation which promotes open communications on the issue, said animal research had been essential for developing vaccines and treatments for Covid-19.
Ferrets and macaque monkeys were used to test the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines, including the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.
Hamsters are being used to develop Covid-19 treatment strategies as they display a more severe form of the disease than ferrets and monkeys.
Guinea pigs have also been used in regulatory research to batch test vaccine potency, UAR said.
However, the majority of research facilities carried out significantly less work than usual between January 2020 and December 2020, due to the various restrictions imposed because of the pandemic.
The majority (96%) of all experimental procedures were assessed as sub-threshold, mild, non-recovery or moderate in severity, 4% were assessed as severe.
Ten organisations accounted for nearly half (47%) of all animal research in Britain last year.
They were the Francis Crick Institute, University of Cambridge, Medical Research Council, University of Oxford, University of Edinburgh, University College London, University of Glasgow, University of Manchester, King’s College London and Imperial College London.
Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of UAR, said: “Animal research has been essential to the development and safety testing of lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
“Macaque monkeys and ferrets have been used to develop vaccines, including the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, hamsters are being used to develop treatments, and guinea pigs are used to quality-check each batch of vaccines.
“Animal testing provided scientists with initial data that the vaccines were effective and safe enough to move into human clinical trials.
“During these trials, thousands more humans than animals were used to test how effective and safe the vaccines were in people.
“The pandemic has led to increased public interest in the way vaccines and medicines are developed and UAR has worked with research institutions and funding bodies throughout the UK to develop resources that explain to the public how animals have been used in this critical research.”
Jan-Bas Prins, director of the Crick’s Biological Research Facility, said: “Although advances in alternative methods have reduced the need to use animals for some experiments, our bodies are complex and many systems have yet to be recreated artificially.
“This means scientists still need to use animals to study a wide range of conditions including infectious diseases, cancer and developmental problems, while putting great efforts into developing and implementing non-animal methods at the same time.”