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Animal experiments: Belgium slips

437,000 mice, birds, dogs, cats, pigs or monkeys were used and euthanized in Belgian labs in 2020. By flouting several laws, alert the associations.

Belgium is one of the European countries that practices the most animal testing. © BelgaImage

It is a taboo debate, if not complex and ultra-polarized. Should we continue to breed, stress, injure and euthanize hundreds of thousands of animals each year to further increase our life expectancy? An ethical, philosophical, anthropological and ecological question that erects a reinforced concrete wall between scientists and defenders of the animal cause. If the first defend these tests as an essential tool for research, nothing prevents to frame this practice as well as possible to avoid abuses. Moreover, Belgium and the EU are working on it. Since the beginning of the 2000s, a series of royal decrees and directives have in any case enabled certain advances. Great apes, for example, have been banned from laboratories. It is also forbidden to test cosmetics or cleaning products on animals. In Belgium, it is also required to obtain prior authorization from the Region and to detail the nature of the experiments in a non-technical document readable by the general public.

But the latest statements available on the Brussels Environment website seem to indicate that not everyone speaks the same language. Take the example of this study project on a “potential new therapy for sepsis” who will carry out experiments on 35 domestic sheep over a period of 1 to 5 years. Negative effects on animals? The lab responds: “Virtually none, as this model is lethal and the animal will be deeply sedated throughout the entire experiment until euthanized”.

No survivors

Belgium is one of the European countries that practices the most animal testing. According to the latest official statements, that is to say provided by the experimenters, 437,000 animals were used in Belgian laboratories in 2020. That is, in particular, 250,000 mice, but also 70,000 rabbits, 5,000 pigs, 1,900 dogs, 250 cats and 200 horsepower. And 100% of these tested animals are ultimately euthanized. “A veterinarian from the Animal Welfare Inspectorate suggested that we submit a request to recover viable animals, explains Solange T’Kint of the ASBL SEA (Suppression of animal experiments) who has just signed a white card on this subject in The Free. We introduced it but never got a response.” This forum criticizes in particular the blocking of reforms by universities.

In 2020, a draft decree was thus submitted by Céline Tellier, Walloon Minister for Animal Welfare, to better regulate these experiments and encourage the use of alternatives, such as the culture of human cells or computer modelling. But the academic community has slowed down according to the association, which denounces a violation of European directive 2010/63. Which specifies that the Member States must give preference to experimental methods that do not involve the use of live animals. And this would not be the only legislation flouted by our authorities. “Following this failure, the minister tried to reassure the associations by highlighting the creation this year of a Walloon committee for the protection of experimental animals. The Walloon Animal Welfare Code is very clear on this subject: this committee must operate impartially and independently, and its members are free from conflicts of interest.” But a new Walloon decree issued this year weighs down any hope of independence. Of the 18 full members of this committee, 14 belong to laboratories or the academic sector. Only two members proposed by the Walloon Animal Welfare Council and two other representatives of the public authorities who only have an advisory role complete this system.

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Nuremberg against animals

Co-signer of the carte blanche, André Menache is well aware of the functioning of these ethics committees. This veterinarian worked for several years for the ethics committee of the Belgian government (dissolved following regionalization) and for a Swiss regional committee. “These bodies function like a blank check. I have never succeeded in stopping a single study because the regulations do not require researchers to prove that their animal model is relevant to humans. When I asked if the rat was a good predictive model for studying cancer in humans, I was told that I was going beyond the scope of my mission. We do not want representatives of civil society with a critical mind on these committees. There is no transparency as we subsidize them through our taxes. In England and in the Scandinavian countries, civil society has the right to obtain information from an external expert to judge the relevance of these tests. But this is not the case in Belgium.” On the side of the office of the Walloon Minister of Animal Welfare, it is specified that this committee, unlike those of the other Regions, respects the balance between the experimenters and the others. Except that among these “others”, there are six representatives of the academic world whose reputation is not really that of opponents of animal experimentation.

These associations are therefore calling for these bodies to be reformed, but also for certain laws on animal experiments to be reviewed, which sometimes date from the Middle Ages of scientific research. “Since the Nuremberg trial, continues the veterinarian, a 1946 law requires pharmaceutical companies to first test their drugs on a rodent, usually a rat, and on a non-rodent, a dog or a monkey, before passing in human clinical trials.” Science has however evolved to the point of using “organs on a chip”, ie miniature human organs reconstituted from cultured cells or surgical waste. “Compared to the animal model, it is a much more predictive tool. It’s day and night. These private companies obviously know these techniques, they find them very relevant and use them, but they are always obliged, in the end, to stuff a dog or a monkey with drugs three times a day for three months before euthanizing it to obtain the marketing authorization for their latest drug. It’s insane!“As for basic research conducted by universities? “They can do without animals and use on-chip organs, but they don’t do it enough because there’s a lot less paperwork to do to order rats, birds, or pigs.

Forced swimming until exhaustion

Despite the discovery of alternative methods, animal experimentation is therefore only regressing very slowly. The reform is slipping away and Belgium is still carrying out experiments banned elsewhere. “ULiège continues to perform forced swimming tests until exhaustion!”, laments Solange T’Kint. Concretely? The experimenters immerse a rodent in a tank of water. After an agitation phase of about two minutes, the animal stops swimming and freezes, adopting a behavior of despair. Antidepressant molecules are then tested on him… Note that fifteen pharmaceutical companies – including GlaxoSmithKline, Bayer, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson – and the universities of Adelaide (Australia) and King’s College (London) have already banned these experiments following the campaigns of the PETA United States association aimed at demonstrating the cruelty and uselessness of these tests.

At the heart of a lab

Centers that do animal testing are not keen on opening their doors to the public. To remedy this lack of transparency, SILABE, a laboratory at the University of Strasbourg specializing in biomedical research on macaques, is offering a virtual tour of its facilities. A visit during which you will not see primates injured, with scars or wearing electrodes. However, we discover the conditions in which these monkeys are locked up. In cages even smaller than those in zoos, where a human could not even stand. When these macaques are “invited” to participate in experiments, they are snared and placed in glass cages with only their heads sticking out. Once a week, they are entitled to a mini-playground intended to “enrich their environment” and to a TV session to watch animal documentaries or Walt Disney films. Not sure that this initiative, a priori laudable, does not reassure the detractors of animal experiments.

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