The failure of animal testing

Animal testing captured in the Channel 4 documentary ANIMALS.

Animal testing in British laboratories is down – now the government must target zero.

Leading research scientists perpetually highlight the necessity of greater value human data in vaccine development. 

Animal experiment statistics are released every July by the UK government. And every year the numbers make for disturbing reading.

The figures just released show 2.88 million experiments were carried out using animals in 2020.  

It is worth pausing to think about what this number represents. First, what you see is what you get. Don’t be hoodwinked by semantics.  


The Home Office refers to three million procedures. But as we and fellow scientists know, this translates more or less to three million animals used in those experiments.

That’s three million individuals who the government itself agree are sentient - dogs and mice, cats, horses and monkeys among them -  who did not wish to be ‘laboratory animals’.

If they could have expressed their wishes, it’s likely they would have requested to live natural lives with agency and freedom.

For the first time in many years there was, during 2020, a significant decrease in animal use, amounting to an unprecedented 15 percent drop.

At face value this might indicate that the number of animal experiments, opposed by much of the public, is finally starting to fall and will one day fizzle out as they are replaced by more humane and human-relevant science.


Don’t be fooled. As the Home Office itself has admitted, this reduction is in large part due to the national lockdowns which affected people working in research facilities and therefore animal use.

Predictably, those who fund, commission, approve, regulate and conduct animal experiments clamoured  to champion the role of animals in research, and this year have sought to justify their arguments by highlighting their use in the fight against COVID-19.

Leading research scientists perpetually highlight the necessity of greater value human data in vaccine development. 

These claims wither under scrutiny. Leading research scientists perpetually highlight the necessity of greater value human data in vaccine development.

This is due to the well-publicised failed attempts to create animal-based models for research that bear significant similarity to human COVID-19.

Scientists struggled to generate data with mice and monkeys that matched what was being seen in human COVID patients.  


Instead, at the root of real progress in COVID vaccine development were human-specific research methods based on 3D cultures of human cells and computational methods.

The U.S. House Committee on Appropriations recently recognised the success of non-animal approaches in discovering more about COVID, and crucially in identifying new therapies to treat the disease.

Overall, this year’s figures reveal the continued dependence of the scientific community on outdated methods which anyone who cares for animals and good science will find appalling. 

For example, the number of experiments has risen on dogs (three percent), cats (11 percent), rabbits (11 percent) and horses (three percent). The number of experiments on horses has increased by 29 percent in the last decade alone.

There has been a 77 percent increase in the use of rhesus macaques who, along with other monkeys, were involved in 2,400 experiments.  Many of them were imported from Asia and Africa.


Around 86,000 procedures were classed as causing “severe” suffering to the animals involved. Much of this research focussed on cancer and the immune and nervous systems, even though scientific literature is full of data showing there are crucial differences between species, so you cannot reliably apply data from animals to humans in these, and other, areas.

It stands to reason if any concerted, sustained effort was being made to reduce the use of animals in British science, we would not be seeing these increases.

Figures released recently by Public Health England (PHE), which has four research campuses, show that one of their sites used 137 monkeys. Overall in 2020, over 6,300 animals were used in experiments – 44 percent more than used in the previous year, 2019.

These experiments involved, for example, developing new animal ‘models’ of COVID-19 to test vaccines, exposing animals to X-ray radiation, including to their eyes - to induce tumours, and causing lung disease by exposing the animals to diesel exhaust fumes.

Yet all these fields of research have available advanced, human-specific, humane techniques and clinical studies which provide human-relevant data directly.


The frustration among the British public and the growing number of scientists, who know that better research science could and should be the gold standard, is unprecedented and increasing.

The desire for a move away from animal research is no longer a niche cause. It is thankfully now in the mainstream of scientific conversation.

That’s because animal free research is no longer solely based on animal ethics and compassion – important though those are – but also now firmly based on human ethics and science.

Scientists worldwide are devising sea-change research strategies and putting them into practice. They fully appreciate a paradigm shift is an imperative - not only for the animals but for humans too.

Scientists need better research because we need to understand the diseases that afflict us and our loved ones. We need human relevant data to find treatments and cures.


Animal based research has demonstrably failed for decades - and it can only ever fail due to intractable biological species differences.

Britain is a country that prides itself as a leader of science. It now finds itself at an unprecedented point scientifically and historically.

British scientists must grasp the opportunities before us with a keen sense of urgency. We must change the way we research and seek better cures and treatments for human disease and illness.

If we fail to do so, we’ll be left behind as more progressive nations forge ahead. That’s why there is now a petition calling on the government to recognise the urgent need to use animal-free science and publish a clear and ambitious action plan with timetables and milestones to drive the phase-out of animal experiments.

For Britain to become a world leader in biomedical research, ministers must get behind and accelerate the transition to animal free science. If they do, it will be a win for animals and humans everywhere.

These Authors

Dr Jarrod Bailey is the science director at Animal Free Research UK. Dr Katy Taylor is director of science and regulatory affairs at Cruelty Free International


You can urge the UK Government to phase out animal testing by signing a petition.

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