Scientists carrying out animal research in Zurich have run into trouble following the introduction of stricter legislation to reduce pain and stress.
At least two experiments involving macaque monkeys have been put on hold amid confusion over how the law should be interpreted – even the Federal Veterinary Office says the issue is a grey area.
Under Swiss law, scientists must submit a protocol involving all animal experimentation to a local evaluation committee.
While the committee is only a consultative body, the cantonal veterinary office that delivers the authorisations usually follows its recommendations.
In Zurich, the local committee - whose head is a philosopher, but also includes scientists and animal-rights activists - has recently caused an uproar in some parts of the scientific community.
Projects have been frozen when their authorisations came up for renewal or when a new request was put in.
Daniel Kiper of Zurich's Institute for Neuroinformatics is one of the scientists who has had to put some of his work on hold because of the commission.
A majority of its members ruled against his authorisation request last year to conduct research on the monkeys with the potential to help stroke victims.
They were opposed to Kiper's plan to deprive the animals of water ahead of tests. A drink was a reward when the macaques carried out a task properly.
But the Zurich veterinary office decided this time not to follow the recommendation, leading commission members to appeal to the cantonal health department, an appeal that has now been upheld.
Kiper says he fails to understand the commission's stance.
"It was a new project, but the techniques we proposed to use are the same ones we have employed in the past four years," he told swissinfo. "[As previously] we would have only regulated water intake before working sessions."
However, the reasons behind the refusals to renew authorisations are rooted in revised Swiss legislation, which has reinforced the notion of animal dignity and changed the way the evaluation committees should go about their work. Previously, committees focused on reducing the number of experiments, refining and replacing them when possible.
Now the animal's dignity is given more weight. According to Klaus Peter Rippe, president of the Zurich committee, using the reward mechanism to get a monkey to carry out a task was harmful to its dignity.
For researchers like Kiper, who believes an animal's dignity is important, the change to the legislation is not minor. "I feel it [the legislation] is problematic because it opens the door to too many different interpretations," he said.
But for Rippe the decision is not an ethical one, but a legal one. "The dignity of animals is written into the [Swiss] constitution. The commission is not interested in ethical stances, and my own ethical viewpoint is not important," he told swissinfo.
Officials at the Federal Veterinary Office admit there is a problem since there are no clear criteria to what constitutes an animal's dignity and that they will be probably defined through practice.
Suffering versus benefits
In both cases under review, a decision was also reached because the commission considered the animal's suffering to be out of proportion with potential health benefits for humans. The experiments included implanting electrodes in the monkeys' brains for measurements.
Kiper believes however that the law leaves too much scope for interpretation. "It is very difficult to draw a line between fundamental and clinical research. Experience has shown that clinical research relies on the basic research that preceded it," he added.
But according to the veterinary office, this weighing of the cost to animal welfare against the potential benefits to humans is nothing new and has always been a factor in the committees' decisions.
The Zurich scientists are still hoping to get their work back on track. Zurich University and the Federal Institute of Technology, which oversee the neurinformatics institute, have announced they will appeal against the health department's decision.
This situation could have a potentially unwanted effect on Swiss animal research. Industry lobby groups and some scientists have warned that experiments could be carried out abroad.
"It's not inconceivable that if more and more experiments are turned down, it will mean that animal experimentation in Switzerland becomes impossible," admits Kiper.
swissinfo, Scott Capper
550,505 animals were used in Swiss scientific experiments in 2005.
This was a rise of 10.6% over the previous year, mainly due to the increased use of genetically modified mice.
This figure was nearly two million in 1983.
The number of authorisations granted was 2,414 the same number as in 2004.
408 primates were involved in experiments.
Animal dignity and experimentation
According to the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences and the Swiss Academy of Sciences, researchers must demonstrate the need for all experiments on animals and to verify their justifiability through ethical balancing.
This balancing is the responsibility of the individual researcher and must be justified to the various authorising bodies and the general public.
Furthermore, animals have the right to the respect of their dignity and the respect of their characteristics, needs and behaviours.
Any experiment that causes pain or stress to the animal represents an attack on the dignity of the animal and must, therefore, be justified through the balancing of the ethical concerns involved.