Animal testing is a controversial topic that has provoked continuous debate for many years. Various institutions, from universities to pharmaceutical companies, conduct tests on animals to assess the safety and effectiveness of products. 24 April marks World Day for Laboratory Animals and it is important to understand exactly what animal testing entails.

“Give me an alternate testing method that both works and is equally as predictive as an animal model, then that very day I would [start] using the alternative in the stead of [an] animal model,” says Professor Vinny Naidoo, Chair of the University of Pretoria’s Animal Ethics Committee. Prof. Naidoo states that although it is “easy to call animal testing flawed,” the reality is that it is a “necessary evil, until such [a] time as we manage to develop fully predictive laboratory bench models [and] do not need animals or animal tissues derived immediately from an animal.” Prof. Naidoo mentioned several alternatives, including using post-mortem tissue and biochemical pathways that mimic pathways inside human cells. However, these alternatives are rather used to maximise the chance of success in animal testing, therefore minimising “wasteful testing” as they are not yet 100% valid. Naidoo also explains that “Laboratory models are not that predictive as they only take one or two variables into account. As an example, the human body is far more complex than a petri dish. Since we cannot simulate the entire body as yet, we cannot stop with animal testing, since this is the only available alternative to direct human testing.” Prof. Naidoo believes that “at some point, testing in an animal will be required if the product is to be used in people or veterinary medicine.” A misconception that Prof. Naidoo discusses is that drugs are not tested on people and he dismisses this misconception by saying that it is “not the first step [in the testing process] due to the high risk to a person.”

Prof. Naidoo estimates that “probably up to 80% of all medical knowledge has been derived from animal testing” and that such research enables both people and animals to live “better, longer lives”. People have benefitted from animal testing in various ways, including “understanding the mechanism behind disease,” determining if a “molecule has a high chance of killing a person or veterinary patient,” and allowing medicines and diseases to be tested on an entire body, which is a complex system.

Yet not everyone shares Prof. Naidoo’s sentiment on the necessities of animal testing. Toni Brockhoven, the National Chairperson of Beauty Without Cruelty South Africa, says that “animal tests are misleading, as the results cannot be directly extrapolated to humans.” She uses the example of penicillin, which is lethal to guinea pigs but a human “lifesaver”. Brockhoven says that animal tests “are often not done through scientific necessity, but to satisfy legal requirements”. However, cosmetic animal testing is not a legal requirement anywhere in the world, and must be distinguished from other forms of animal testing. Brockhoven believes that with over 2 000 cosmetic ingredients already proven safe, cosmetic testing and importation of such products should be illegal.

Brockhoven’s views on alternatives differ to Prof. Naidoo’s as she believes they can completely “replace the use of animals in exploratory research and many standard drug tests”, and states that there are a wide range of computer models, which studies have confirmed to be accurate. Among these are “Organ on a Chip”, a micro-device that recreates tissue interfaces of human organs and “computer human-patient simulators”, such as “Trauma Man” used to teach emergency surgical procedures. Additionally, there are in-vitro alternatives such as Eyetex and Skintex, which assess eye and skin irritation.

South Africa has stringent rules that researchers must abide by when conducting animal testing. Prof. Naidoo states that the South African National Standard (SANS) 10386 code is taken very seriously and “sets the minimum standards for the housing and care of all animals in research settings […] The code also stipulates the minimum staff requirements for the care of animals.” Naidoo adds that the most important aspect of this code is that every research institution must form an ethics committee, which uses the “3Rs” principle for all projects: reduction, refinement and replacement. This means that as few animals as possible are used, pain medication must be offered as “it is not appropriate to let animals suffer”, and animal testing must be the “last step to medical testing.” Moreover, each project must meet four categories enforced by the ethics committee: a veterinarian with experience in research, senior researchers with a good understanding of animal research, members from welfare organisations, and a person who is not involved in animal research to question the project.

Despite these codes, Dr Smaragda Louw, Director and Spokesperson of Ban Animal Trading SA, feels that mistreatment of animals during animal testing remains a problem. Louw states that the SANS code is “only a standard, and institutions involved in animal experimentation choose whether they wish to conform to this standard, so it’s voluntary […] Once the standard becomes a regulation, it will be mandatory for all these institutions to implement [it].” In terms of legislation, South Africa has the Animals Protection Act (APA), but Louw says that this act “offers only basic protection, and when certain experiments require, for example, that animals be left without water and food, the APA does not offer any protection.” Conversely, Prof. Naidoo asserts that “UP uses this code for all research projects, as do all other research institutes in the countries.”

While UP supports responsible animal research, it appears that some companies may not. L’Oreal recently received backlash on social media for allegations of unethical animal testing. Dr Louw believes that while some companies do abide by the SANS code, it still remains unethical to test products on animals and she ends by saying that “animal lives are cheap. Alternatives are expensive. Ethics usually takes the backseat when profit is involved.”

Image: Understanding Animal Research/Flickr

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