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Following a complaint by the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments (ECEAE), the European Ombudsman has criticised the European Commission over the selection of experts to review the use of primates in experiments.
In May 2008, the Commission asked one of its standing scientific committees, the Scientific Committee on Health and Scientific Risks (SCHER), to conduct an inquiry into whether primate research works and the alternatives to it. The inquiry was in part a response to a 2007 parliamentary declaration, signed by no fewer than 433 MEPs, calling on the Commission to bring forward proposals to replace primate use. It was also prompted by the BUAV's, report ‘Ending Primate Experiments: meeting the challenge’ that argued that primate research was replaceable.
SCHER’s report strongly backed the use of primates in research, playing down the role and potential of alternative non-animal methods and contained no proposals to phase out primate use. This was reflected in weak protection for primates in the new European animal experiments legislation which followed.
The ECEAE complained to the Ombudsman that the working group set up by SCHER was imbalanced and lacked the necessary expertise. Nine out of the 11 so-called experts were animal researchers. Tellingly, none were experts in primate research. In addition, only one member had (limited) experience in alternatives to the use of primates. In this context, it was hardly surprising, the ECEAE argued, that SCHER produced such a biased and inadequate report, failing to refer to most of the huge swathe of scientific evidence showing that primate research for human diseases simply does not work and detailing the potential of non-animal methods.
In his report, the Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, expressed concerns about how the experts were chosen. This failed, he said, to guarantee necessary excellence, independence, impartiality and transparency. He has issued a draft recommendation that the Commission change its procedures for involving experts, with a public call in future cases. This is damning criticism of the Commission, which has steadfastly refused to accept that it did anything wrong with this inquiry. Extraordinarily, the Commission argued that scientists attached to organisations working on alternatives to using animals in research are not fit to serve on its working groups, whereas animal researchers are – clear evidence of a deep-rooted bias in favour of animal research.
The Ombudsman did not identify any obvious error in the way the working group assessed the evidence submitted to it (as the ECEAE contended) and did not regard it as his role to assess the evidence himself. However, the ECEAE maintains that, if the wrong experts are chosen, it is inevitable that the report they produce will be flawed.
Michelle Thew, ECEAE Chief Executive, said:
“We are pleased that the Ombudsman has identified problems with the selection of experts for the inquiry into the use of primates in research. A recent opinion poll by YouGov in the UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic showed that 81% of people are opposed to experiments on primates causing pain or suffering (as all primate experiments inevitably do). This issue is enormously important not only for animal welfare but also for human health. It is unforgivable that the EU should have come up with such a one-sided and unscientific report, from a working group packed with animal researchers, and that as a result subsequent EU legislation has failed to give primates the protection the public clearly wants.”