Editorial: Animal experiments, with safeguards

Published in The Hindu on November 5, 2005

By suggesting a relaxation of norms for clearance of animal experiments, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has brought into focus an issue that has been dogging pharmaceutical companies and other institutions that use animals for scientific research. What is needed is an urgent relook at the way the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA) has functioned since its inception in 1998. The President’s observations come at a time when the new patent laws have prompted Indian pharmaceutical companies and research organisations to speed up their programmes of drug discovery. Given the inordinate delay and, at times, the unrealistic demands that characterise the process of getting CPCSEA clearance for animal experimentation, science appears to have become the victim of over-the-top animal activism. The relevant guidelines unveiled in September 2004 by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests have brought little cheer to the scientific community as the ground reality remains unchanged. While the stipulation that only animals with the least degree of sentience and capable of yielding scientifically valid conclusions should be used looks good in intent, getting the nod from CPCSEA, which is now obliged to apply the guidelines, for using large animals whenever necessary, has been an uphill task.

For all its shortcomings, the Committee has been able to create greater awareness among scientists about the need to treat animals humanely. The credit for improving the condition of animal houses across the country must also go to it. While scientists must respect the rights of animals, CPCSEA’s real job is to facilitate scientific research within the regulatory framework. It should strive to strike a fine balance between two apparently conflicting objectives. The first step will be to provide quick approvals, make the approval system transparent, and involve more scientists familiar with animal studies in the committee. While arbitrary conditions laid down by the Committee have stalled research, private organisations and institutions have sought to sidestep the hurdles by having the studies done abroad at higher cost. Such an approach is beyond the means of most government-funded institutions and universities. The Committee should desist from donning an activist hat against experimental science. It should realise that tissue culture and computer modelling can serve as additional tools but they cannot replace animal experimentation. Functioning as a watchdog and a facilitator should be its objective if science is to progress. Scientists for their part should try to adopt the `3R’ philosophy of W.M.S. Russell and R.L. Burch — replace animals by in vitro methods wherever possible, reduce the number of animals needed for an experiment, and refine experimentation to lessen pain and distress — in letter and spirit.