EC report: testing on non-human primates falling but still needed

A European Commission report on the use of non-human primates in research says there has been sustained scientific progress and a reduction in primate use and suffering, but still more can be done.

Image of a monkey in a page
Credit: NC3Rs

Matthew Brown, our science portfolio adviser on neuroscience and mental health, and Sam Alvis, one of our policy officers, pick out the key points and explain Wellcome’s position.

Regulation of animal research

Research on animals in the UK is regulated by the Home Office but stems from an EU directive. 

As the EU prepares to review the effectiveness of the directive that protects animals used in in research, the European Commission asked one its two scientific committees – on health, environmental and emerging risks (SCHEER) – to assess the latest evidence and provide an opinion on the use of non-human primates in research and drug testing. 

The opinion, developed with input from the public and experts, is positive – it commends sustained scientific progress alongside reduced primate use and suffering.

What the SCHEER opinion says

The committee last looked at this issue in 2009 and found that non-human primates were essential to progress in research and safety testing. This updated opinion goes much further than before in analysing alternatives to non-human primates. 

It says primate research is still essential in a number of areas but that the need has fallen with increasingly available alternatives. 

Significant scientific advances – led by the National Centre for the 3Rs among others – have helped to replace primates completely or reduce and refine their use (the three Rs) by using:

  • human volunteers, such as controlled studies of typhoid or specific influenza strains
  • high-resolution imaging techniques that replace some neuroscience experiments
  • new models that replicate reactions to drugs or disease in petri dishes or computer programmes
  • other species, such as genetically altered mice. 

Despite progress towards the three Rs, the opinion notes issues in uptake of these. It says more can be done to effectively share knowledge and to help researchers at all career stages in experimental design and robust peer review.

Our position on using non-human primates in research

At Wellcome we support the use of non-human primates in research where they are the only option to deliver scientific or health benefits. 

The report discusses five areas of bioscience where non-human primate use is still important, all areas in which we have funded research:

  • safety testing for medical devices and pharmaceuticals
  • treatment and prevention of infectious diseases
  • neuroscience
  • ophthalmology
  • xenotransplantation.

Our process for funding is rigorous. We require high welfare standards and our grants are carefully scrutinised to ensure this. 

Applications using non-human primates are also referred to the NC3Rs for independent review. If we or the NC3Rs think standards could be improved, we’ll ask researchers to make changes. 

We support the strong message that SCHEER’s opinion sends to policymakers about the balance between continued use of non-human primates and alternatives. 

Next steps

The European Commission will incorporate this advice into the directive review, but it is clear that funders, researchers, legislators and others should remain committed to improving animal welfare and reducing animal use in research wherever possible. 

More information

Read the full opinion, or the lay summary.

Related page

Research involving animals