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Now that the World Cup is history, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro is getting back to normal. But in one area at least, Rio remains poised on a knife-edge — and that is biomedical research.

If approved in a final round of votes within the next few weeks, a bill banning animal research within the city limits would put entire departments of renowned biomedical research institutions — such as the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) — out of business.

Biomedical investigators working in Rio have reason to be concerned. Fiocruz and UFRJ have been directly involved in efforts to boost the country's public health capacities, developing vaccines against tropical diseases and participating in a successful anti-AIDS programme. Both would be unthinkable without animal research facilities.

The new legislation, proposed by Rio's former television-star councillor Cláudio Cavalcanti, prohibits "vivisection as well as the use of animals in experimental procedures which cause physical or psychological suffering". Cavalcanti was elected on the basis of his stand for animal rights. Legislation previously initiated by his office includes the banning of the production of animal furs, which did not become law, and banning the use of animals to power vehicles, which did.

The bill currently under scrutiny passed a second round of votes, but was vetoed in April by Mayor César Maia. The city council can, however, overturn the veto, and the outcome of a new vote is therefore rather uncertain.

Cavalcanti is raising support through activities such as a mock public hearing, held on 20 June, gathering the majority of testimony from those who favour the ban, with protests from a group of scientists in the gallery. Idle discussions like this tend to prevail in many Brazilian city councils where TV and radio celebrities often figure prominently.

Ill-conceived move

Although the bills subject is relevant — humane limits to animal use — and has the laudable goal of preventing suffering, it is ill conceived. It is not rational to let every city or town in any given country decide whether to allow the use of animals in research simply to satisfy local and narrow constituencies such as Rio's animal rights activists.

It is doubtless wise to look for alternatives to animal models for testing new drugs and treatments, such as cell cultures and computer simulations. These methods, however, are still far from capable of replicating the complex dynamics of a living body. In order to ascertain the toxicity of a new medicine or vaccine, or to determine how an organism processes them, it is almost impossible to avoid animal trials.

But it would be unreasonable to give biomedical researchers total freedom to decide if and when sentient organisms should be used for research. The notion of societal control over research is strange to most Brazilian scientists, who perhaps do not see that pressure to publish or patent could lead to the unnecessary use of animals. At least, it could lead to a level of suffering that non-scientists consider inadmissible, despite the possible benefits to society offered by the research.

But banning all forms of animal experimentation, even those necessary to license drugs and treatments for veterinary purposes (after all, medicines and surgical procedures for pets have to be tested as well), is going too far. In creating this bill, Cavalcanti has promoted animal welfare to the position of a supreme good, well above human needs.

Cavalcanti himself volunteered as a replacement for animals in drug trials, which hints at a lopsided value scale and an unsettling lack of understanding of how biomedical research actually works. Thousands of mice are used in big facilities and preclinical trials each year, and it would not be feasible — nor acceptable — to replace them with human beings.

The bill is also unenforceable. Rio can barely take care of its population's basic needs, from education to health care, and would not have the resources to routinely control dozens of labs. It would amount to a waste of time and funds. Most probably, it will fade away along with the other Brazilian laws that 'do not stick', but only after a cumbersome series of court appeals that drain resources from research institutions.

Time, ink and spit

Unfortunately, Rio's city council is not alone. The controversy sparked by Cavalcanti's bill risks replication in São Paulo state, where representative Palmiro Menucci presented a similar bill to the state legislature on 6 May. Its chances of survival in the political jungle look rather slim, but much time, ink and spit are sure to be spent before reasonable arguments prevail.

The research community has an obligation to prove itself more enlightened. It is time for the grand public gesture, and for finding more effective ways of engaging society at large in scrutinising science's 'mysterious ways'.

Marching to a holy war against science's alleged 'enemies' — those who want to regulate what has to be regulated in research — in Brazil will always risk defeat.

Each and every important ethical dilemma involves the choice between two desirable outcomes. The best solutions to such dilemmas are usually those that involve a compromise.