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On 29 November, animals rights organisation Gaia released undercover recordings at the animal unit at the Brussels Health Campus in Jette. The video was recorded for Gaia by an animal carer, who worked at the unit for three months and also recorded conversations with staff members. “Gaia has found repeated and grave animal suffering, including numerous shortcomings and breaches of law that were meticulously recorded on tape and paper by our investigator,” the organisation said.
Reactions to the news were extreme. Two days later, the campuses in Jette and Etterbeek were rocked by bomb threats. Both campuses were evacuated; there was no bomb. Since then, things have gone quiet. Quiet, but not inactive.
VUB immediately launched an internal investigation, to verify whether the documented situations and actions are in line with the legislation and with its own ethical guidelines, and to see how and where existing internal procedures must be tightened, including with regard to animal welfare. The university is also cooperating fully with the external investigation that Brussels state secretary for animal welfare Bianca Debaets has ordered, and is in direct contact with Gaia.
It’s a serious matter, of course, and a stressful one for the personnel who are closely involved in the daily operations of the animal unit. However, they are determined to work with the internal and external investigations, even if it has consequences for their own work. Peter In’t Veld, dean of the faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, is proud of his staff.
“For weeks, our people have been under great pressure to provide answers to the many questions in the context of our own audits and to meet the demands of the inspection service. At the same time they are expected to make greater efforts to strengthen the working of the lab in the short and medium term. We have great appreciation for their effort and the relentless work ethic in this difficult time. We realise that VUB is expected to provide a quality infrastructure that also offers the best guarantees for optimal animal welfare. Alongside that we are working on the newest practices, such as replacement in-vitro systems, in which VUB plays a pioneering role on the world stage. Furthermore, there is no doubt – even by Gaia – of the need for animal testing in research into life-threatening conditions such as cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s, and here VUB is also doing pioneering work. The work of our researchers and all related colleagues is of absolutely vital importance.”
For the animal lab, investments in newer research infrastructure with the most modern techniques have been planned for some time. “With those changes, we explicitly aim to push the boundaries of housing and general care of lab animals,” adds vice rector for research policy Karin Vanderkerken.
To be continued…