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Public Health England (PHE) and Porton Biopharma Limited (PBL) have joined over 130 research organisations and universities in the UK committed to being more transparent with the public about when, how and why we use animals in our research.
How and why we use animals
Our primary duty is to protect the public’s health from infectious disease and other public health hazards. We maintain an active programme to replace, refine and reduce the use of animals in our research (the 3 Rs) and work closely with organisations such as the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) by contributing to their websites on best practice NC3Rs housing and gaining funding awards for improving animal welfare NC3Rs Crack-it Solutions.
The use of any animal is not undertaken lightly. However, while not all research results in new diagnostics and treatments, it nonetheless plays a critical role in developing both the basic and applied scientific knowledge that is crucial for health protection and medical advances.
The vast majority of PHE’s scientific research does not involve animals but the biological similarities between humans and other species means that they can, on some occasions, be the only effective model for research into infectious and other diseases where the response to infection, vaccination or environmental hazards is too complex to be modelled in any other way. Some examples of this are to:
- support the development of new vaccines or therapies for the main public health threats and emerging or re-emerging diseases, including: influenza, HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis C, meningococcal disease, neonatal sepsis, Clostridium difficile (C. diff), Zika and Ebola
- improve methods of diagnosis of new and emerging pathogens
- develop tools for quickly identifying the severity of flu
- maintain a robust system for access to immunoglobulin and antitoxins for the prevention and treatment of infectious disease
- identify and characterise the effects of chemical, radiation and environmental hazards
- improve management of casualties in acute radiation and chemical incidents
We use a small range of animal species in our research such as mice, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats and non-human primates, which are selected on the basis that the model chosen gives most clinical relevance to our research.
In cases where their use is essential in public health research and biopharmaceutical research and development, and production, we are committed to ensuring that all animals in our care are treated with full respect, and that all staff involved with this work show due consideration at every level. Animals are housed in social groups and given environmental enrichment appropriate to each species in order to allow natural behaviour wherever possible. Care staff are encouraged to develop new enrichment strategies and to present any improvements at national or international meetings.
How we work
Our work is overseen by local ethical committees and we operate within a strict regulatory regime overseen by the Home Office, whose inspectors have free and unfettered access to our scientific campuses. Work using experimental animals is conducted for PHE on 3 campuses, according to the type of research. Each site holds a Home Office Establishment licence that allows animal research to be conducted. A system of project and personal licences is required for each programme of work. This ensures that individual research scientists and technicians working with animals have appropriate training and approval from the Home Office to do so.
When planning research, our scientists always consider alternatives to animals such as computer models and working on cells in the lab. They look for different methods that can replace animal research or reduce the numbers of animals involved, and they search for ways to modify their methods to improve animal welfare. Researchers will only proceed when an alternative cannot be found. Every opportunity is taken to maximise the information gained from each experiment and a substantial archive of stored blood samples and tissues means that up to date tests that include genomics and proteomics can be applied to gain new information without using more animals.
Scientists who work with animals are supported by a team of expert staff with veterinary and technical skills so that experiments are conducted to the highest standards of animal welfare. Animals are housed in specially designed units where they can live comfortably. Staff training and facilities are all designed to improve animal welfare.
Proposed new research and alterations to ongoing research are examined by an ethics committee made up of a variety of people including vets, animal technicians, scientists, and others who are not directly involved in animal research and can bring a fresh perspective to the consideration of research proposals. Ethics committees discuss the merits and details of proposed research and question whether alternative methods could be used before they approve the work to go ahead.
Over 99% of animal research at PHE involves mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, ferrets, rabbits, turkeys and rats. The remainder, less than 1%, involves non-human primates. All animals are obtained from Home Office approved breeders and suppliers.