Rabbits given cholera and fatal injections in ‘painful’ university experiments

Hundreds of rabbits were allegedly subjected to to painful experiments in British universities last year, a campaign group has said.  

Some of the creatures were infected with cholera, others given fatal injections, while some had their eyes sewn shut. 

Scientists are becoming increasingly secretive about the tests, and the number prepared to release figures almost halved this year, researchers found.

Oxford University, which in 2017 carried out 236,429 tests on animals, refused for first time in four years to reveal how many rabbits it used last year.

Edinburgh, Cambridge, University College London and 15 others also declined to give details, according to anti-vivisection group Animal Justice Project (AJP).

The campaign group, which uncovered details of some experiments from research papers, called for more transparency on “out-of-date and futile” tests on “Easter bunnies”.

It believes around 26 experiments are conducted every day on rabbits in the UK, many in academic institutions.

AJP alleged that last year:

  • Sixty baby rabbits were infected with cholera at Nottingham University, causing diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration. They were believed to have suffered extreme thirst, low blood pressure and irregular heartbeat causing death if “humane termination” was not carried out.
  • At Liverpool University 18 rabbits had bacteria injected into their spines every other day for 10 days to induce fungal disease. Some died prematurely.
  • At University College London researchers carried out “traumatic” eye surgery, injecting drugs into rabbits’ eyes and sewing them shut. Six rabbits were operated on for eye implants and left for a month before being killed.
  • Sheffield University led on a study in India in which synthetic membranes were glued to one eye of 14 rabbits and the eye sewn shut. Ten animals were left with ocular lesions and eye congestion. “These rabbits would like have felt severe pain and burning to their eyes while confined to their barren metal cage or worse, restraining stocks,” AJP reported
  • At Leicester University at least 64 rabbits were killed in an experiment funded by the British Heart Foundation. In multiple experiments by Kings College London rabbits’ heart arteries were injured before they were fed high-fat diets so researchers could investigate plaque build-up

Durham University used 264 rabbits, Leicester used 68, Sheffield 59 and Nottingham 40, according to AJP, which also claimed that Liverpool University refused to answer a freedom of information (FOI) request but told a member of the public it used 122 rabbits.

Latest government figures show that 9,498 rabbits were used in labs in 2017, and AJP said more than half of all animal experiments take place at universities.

The group, which asks them all each year through FOI laws about animals used in research, said this year numbers of institutions being open almost halved, from 46-57 usually to 29 out of 70.

The number refusing almost quadrupled, from 5 to 19, many promising to put details online.

AJP said a replacement test for rabbits had been accepted by regulators since 2010 but its use was not compulsory by law.

Claire Palmer, group founder, said: “Animal experiments like those we have uncovered will be unpalatable to many. Rabbits are a much-loved animal who some share their home with. Disturbingly, universities just won’t tell us what is happening to them.

“They refuse to make information public when asked, but get round it by saying they will put figures online.”

Campaigners staged a “die-in” at Nottingham University, with members dressed as the White Rabbit from Alice In Wonderland. A similar protest is planned at the University of Liverpool on Good Friday.

Speaking on behalf of the universities, Wendy Jarrett, chief executive of Understanding Animal Research, denied they were being secretive.

She said: “Since the publication of the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK in 2014, organisations that carry out, fund or support research using animals have been increasingly transparent about their animal research. UK universities in particular are very open about the research they carry out using animals, with most providing facts, figures, case studies and photos on their websites.

“The AJP’s own figures show that of the 62 universities they contacted this year, 29 provided the information requested and 31 said that they would publish the information on their websites. It is hard to see how AJP can say these universities are being secretive. A few UK universities use rabbits in research, but rabbits overall make up 0.3 per cent of the animal research in this country, and only a quarter of that takes place in universities.

“If alternatives to animal research are available and have been validated by regulators, it is illegal to use an animal and the research will not receive a licence from the Home Office. So rabbits are only used for safety testing, for instance to check that a vaccine will not cause fever in babies and children, when there is no non-animal alternative available.”

University tests on all animals in 2017

University of Edinburgh: 225,366

University College London: 214,570

University of Cambridge: 157,975

King’s College London: 139,679

University of Manchester: 104,863

Imperial College London: 97,787

University of Sheffield: 83,299

University of Newcastle: 53,158

University of Cardiff: 46,728

University of Glasgow: 46,045

University of Birmingham: 45,361

Queen Mary University London: 40,421

University of Dundee: 33,110

University of Exeter: 27,237

University of Nottingham: 25,248

University of Leeds: 22,725

University of Aberdeen: 15,268

Royal Veterinary College: 11,181

University of East Anglia: 11,082

University of Stirling: 9,209

University of Liverpool: 8,396

A Nottingham University spokesman said: “Animal studies are still important where animal-free models cannot mimic the sheer complexity of the body. 

“The cholera study was undertaken for the World Health Organization and government of India to develop treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections. Demonstrating it worked successfully in rabbits was a vital step towards a new cure for a disease which affects millions of the poorest people worldwide.

“We proactively publish all details of our animal testing programme on our public webpages and respond to all Freedom of Information requests.”

An Oxford University spokeswoman said they refuse Freedom of Information requests only on data already due for release.

“The university also releases all animal testing data, by species and severity, every single year. This is usually in the autumn,” she added.

A Liverpool spokeswoman said its work had led to new drugs being approved, adding: “The university uses rabbits in research to help develop new antimicrobial agents for babies, children and adults for diseases that currently have few, if any, treatment options. Rabbit models are used to identify safe and effective dosages of new drugs that can then be studied in clinical trials.” 

A Sheffield spokesperson said its research contributed to groundbreaking developments in treating major diseases, and it was committed to replacing animals.”However, we are not yet at the point where these techniques can entirely replace the need for animals in research.”

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A spokeswoman for UCL said it was very open on the animal research it does and its commitment to use alternative techniques where possible. “Practically all the drugs available today have been discovered or developed due to animal research, and we would not have vaccines, cancer drugs, blood pressure medication, insulin, or inhalers without this work. Research using animals continues to be necessary,” she said. 

The Independent has also contacted Leicester and Kings College London for comment. 


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