De facto import ban: British shipping companies and airlines are refusing to bring in animals for lab testing after pressure from activists

by Fiona Macrae (Mail Online)

Patients could suffer and die because ferry companies and airlines have given in to demands from activists that they stop importing animals for medical research, a former science minister said yesterday.

Lord Drayson warned that the search for cures for diseases will be jeopardised after it emerged that no major ferry operator and no British airline will carry mice, rats, rabbits and other animals vital to research into the UK.

Eurotunnel said it does not have the facilities to transport animals other than pets safely and comfortably through the Channel Tunnel and so has never done so.

Animal rights activists have been accused of ‘picking off’ companies one by one, using demonstrations and email and social media campaigns to intimidate them.

Only P&O, which pulled out of transporting laboratory animals last year, has publicly blamed pressure from animal rights groups.

The firm said it had been subjected to a concerted campaign and that its reputation and the safety of its employees was paramount.

BA said it stopped transporting lab animals 12 years ago, for financial reasons.But Lord Drayson, who was science minister in the Labour government between 2008 and 2010, accused the companies of capitulating.

‘By giving in to the protesters they are inadvertently choking off vital research into some of the most debilitating diseases affecting our society,’ he said.

Scientists say they only use animals when absolutely necessary but the trade plays a vital role in the search for treatments and cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Mice, for example, are cheap, easy to work with, breed quickly and, crucially, 99 per cent of mouse genes exist in the human body in some shape or form.

Genetically-modified mice are invaluable in understanding the mechanics of diseases and for testing drugs.

Sometimes it is crucial forlabs in different countries to use mice with the same genetic mutation.

When this is the case, it is better for the research and for animal welfare to import and export, scientists say.

This is because it could take years to breed the same strain – and many animals could suffer in the process.

Many key advances in modern medicine have their roots in animal research, including life-support machines for sick babies, surgery for the leading cause of blindness in the elderly, kidney dialysis, asthma drugs and polio vaccines.

‘Medical research will wither’: Lord Drayson, former science minister, criticised the companies for their move

Writing in The Times, Lord Drayson said: ‘Although small in number, animals such as mice contribute significantly to the development of new medicines to combat human and animal diseases.

‘If companies continue to withdraw from transporting these animals, the search for cures will shift to other countries, some of which do not have welfare regulations as stringent as those we rightly insist upon in the UK.

Medical research will wither in our universities and, as a result, more people will suffer and die.’

But activists said researchers should work harder to come up with alternatives to animal testing.

Alistair Currie, of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told the BBC: ‘More than 90 per cent of drugs that pass trials in animals fail when they are given to people. They either prove to be unsafe or ineffective.

‘And what we’re actually seeing is over the last 15 years or so, the number of animals tested is going up but the number of drugs coming out is going down.’

Science minister David Willetts said the Government is working with the transport industry and researchers on a code of conduct on how to import lab animals.