Frequently asked questions

We know that animal research is a sensitive subject and of interest to many. On this page we provide answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about our research involving animals.

Why is animal research necessary?

In carrying out research, we use alternatives to animals whenever we can, and we aim to carry out studies with the fewest number of animals possible. Nevertheless, there are still many diseases that are not currently understood and cannot be treated, prevented or cured.

Humans are biologically very similar to other mammals, with most of the same organs performing similar functions and controlled by comparable mechanisms (such as the circulatory and nervous systems). In developing a new medicine, we need to be able to see the effects of the compound in a whole living body. There is currently no alternative to animal research that allows us to study these processes and assess whether a compound has the potential to become a medicine.

In addition, the regulatory authorities that approve medicines for use in humans require new compounds to go through safety studies in animals first. Some countries even require animal testing of non-medicinal products in order to illustrate possible health benefits, and we undertake this animal research when necessary.

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How can animal research be justified if there are still clinical trials that fail and medicines that cause problems?

Animal research used in conjunction with non-animal methods is much more accurate than any other option we have available to study the effects of new medicines and vaccines.

Only about 11% of compounds that are investigated in humans ever make it to market as a medicine. Long before a compound is tested in humans, it has been selected from hundreds of others based partly from findings in animal studies. The entire process of drug discovery relies on information from both animals and humans.

Since the 1970s, the rate of medicines being withdrawn due to serious side-effects has been between 2-3%. In the majority of cases where a medicine is withdrawn, the decision is made because a rare side effect is identified after the medicine becomes widely used by people with complex conditions who are often taking many different medications. With rare side effects, hundreds of thousands of people need to be treated before the condition shows up. This is a much larger group than researched in animal or human studies.

In approved medicines, frequently problems arise due to improper use. A study from 2004 showed that at least 93% of people being admitted to hospital with an adverse reaction had what are called ‘Type A responses’. These responses are known side-effects that could have been avoided if the medicine had been taken according to its prescribing information, or if the doctor had been aware of other medicines being taken by the patient.

Adverse reactions in human clinical trials would definitely increase without animal studies being carried out beforehand, as an estimated 60 to 70% of medicines never reach the stage where we test in humans (clinical testing) because of what we find out in the pre-clinical (animal or laboratory) testing.

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Why can’t researchers use alternatives, such as computers?

Our global policy on animal research requires that if there is a way of obtaining the needed information without animals or with fewer animals, we use it. This means that we use alternatives to animal research wherever we can.

Animals are only used where there is no alternative, either because we need to look at the effects of a medicine or vaccine in a whole living body, or because the regulatory authorities require it.

Find out more about our efforts to replace, reduce and refine animal studies

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Does GSK use animals because it is cheaper than developing alternatives?

Animal testing is not the cheap option – our animals are fed, housed and looked after by qualified professionals throughout their lives. A veterinarian is also on site or on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The alternatives to animal studies are often considerably less expensive. We employ non-animal models whenever possible and apply the 3Rs to replace, reduce or refine animal research.

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How many animals does GSK use?

Each year, we report on the change in the number of animals used over time in our Responsible Business Supplement. In 2014, the number of animals used in our research declined by 8.5% and was 39% lower than in 2000, despite the two main drivers of animal use (R&D investment and vaccine sales) increasing over the same period.

The actual number of animals we use is dependent on the number and type of studies being performed. Therefore the number of animals we use changes over time. While we do not place information on animal numbers and species in public venues, we do provide this data where required to appropriate regulatory authorities.

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Which areas of research use animals?

Much of our work in animals is research designed to help us understand specific diseases, and develop possible medicines and vaccines to treat and prevent them.

Additional studies examine the absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion of a medicine or vaccine by the body. We also have to carry out safety assessments in animals for all prescription medicines and vaccines, as required by regulatory authorities. This toxicology work must be carried out before any medicine or vaccine is administered in human trials. Quality tests in animals may also be needed for vaccines once they are approved.

It is unusual to use animal research for non- prescription medicines (over-the-counter or OTC medicines), as the ingredients tend to be already well understood by the time they are approved for OTC use. We do not test non-medicinal products on animals unless there is a specific legal or regulatory requirement to do so.

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What animals are used in research and where do they come from?

Over 84% of the animals we use in our research are rodents and rabbits. Fish account for a further 15%. The rest of the animals include ferrets, amphibians, pigs, dogs, cats, and non-human primates.

Most of the animals we use are bred specifically for research. There are exceptions, including some fish and amphibians, which we obtain from sustainable sources. We never use pets or strays.

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What is actually done to the animals?

What happens to any given animal depends on the specific research project. The vast majority of experiments involve minor procedures , such as administering a substance and then taking blood or urine samples. Sometimes we also measure effects by observing changes in behaviour or using imaging techniques such as X-ray, MRI or ultrasound. Sometimes we need to induce the symptoms of a disease in order to measure whether a medicine will be an effective treatment. Where appropriate we use anaesthetics or pain-killing drugs to prevent discomfort.

All of our experiments involving animals must first be approved by an ethical review committee independent of the scientific group carrying out the work, and in many cases by the relevant national authority.

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How are the animals cared for?

We take the care of our animals very seriously. Not only is this the right thing to do morally, it is also important that the animals we work with are not in any way sick or distressed as this can make our research invalid.

Our animals are looked after throughout their lives by qualified, trained staff. A veterinarian is onsite or on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Regulatory bodies visit our facilities regularly, and many of these visits are unannounced.

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What happens to animals after they have been used during research?

As many of our experiments are minimally invasive – such as taking blood or urine samples - we are often able to re-use these animals in other similar studies, after approval from our veterinary team and the regulatory authorities, and if we are confident that any compound administered has had no lasting effect.

In many experiments, we will need to gain information about the effects of a product on an animal’s tissues or organs. In such instances the animal will be humanely put down once the study is complete.

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Why aren’t the animals re-homed?

As most of the animals we work with are bred in captivity especially for research, they are neither equipped for survival in the wild nor are they domesticated. So in the vast majority of cases it would not be fair to the animals to re-house them as pets or release them into the wild. In addition, there are very strict controls on the release of animals into the wild.

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How is animal research regulated?

There are laws that govern the conduct of animal studies. In the UK these regulations are the responsibility of the Home Office. In Europe animal research comes under Directive EU 2010/63 and in the US is covered by the Animal Welfare Act.

We also have our own internal policy document, which outlines core principles for animal welfare that must be met. In addition, this policy requires that work done on our behalf meets all applicable laws, rules, and regulations governing the care and welfare of animals.

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How is GSK addressing public concerns about animal research?

Our policy is to be open about animal research as we know that it is a subject that people are concerned about. The information on this website provides an overview of our approach to animal research and how we ensure the welfare of animals in our care.

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What is GSK’s position on animal rights organisations and activists?

We support any genuine, justifiable concerns about animal welfare that are raised by law-abiding individuals or organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

However, we conduct a legitimate business within the confines of the law and so it is unacceptable for any of our employees or their families to be intimidated, harassed or subjected to any acts of violence.

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