Israel’s Biological Research Institute Experiments on Animals Without Oversight

Government acknowledges that an internal committee at the institute reviews the controversial practice instead of the usual Defense Ministry panel

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona, October 26, 2020.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona, October 26, 2020.Credit: Defense Ministry and Institute for Biological Research
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Israel’s Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona relies on its own internal committee to approve experiments that it carries out on animals, although the government acknowledged that the Defense Ministry has a central committee that is supposed to oversee the institute’s experiments.

The Defense Ministry said the biological institute is in compliance with the law and operates under the required supervision of the central committee, but in response to a Freedom of Information request on the subject, the government acknowledged that the institute has its own internal committee that approves animal experimentation rather than the Defense Ministry’s panel.

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On Monday, the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee is scheduled to take up the use of animal experiments under the defense establishment’s auspices. The session is being held at the request of Joint List Knesset member Ofer Cassif. The Noah Federation animal protection organization is expected to present data on animal experimentation carried out in Israel.

The biological institute in Nes Tziona is currently developing a vaccine against the coronavirus. The criticism of the oversight of animal experimentation is not directed at the COVID-19 vaccine effort.

In recent years, animal rights organizations have filed Freedom of Information requests and High Court petitions seeking data from defense agencies on experiments that they conduct on animals. Between 2000 and 2009, the defense establishment and the biological institute have collectively performed experiments on an average of 30,000 animals a year, according to the responses to Freedom of Information requests and a report from the State Comptroller’s office.

The Biological Institute in Ness Ziona.Credit: Defense Ministry

In advance of Monday’s Knesset committee hearing, the Knesset’s Research and Information Center assembled data of its own on the subject at the request of the committee’s chairwoman, Kahol Lavan MK Miki Haimovich. The new data, which relates to 2018, shows that the defense establishment (not including the Nes Tziona institute) conducted 320,000 animals that year, excluding experiments that were deemed classified.

Animal rights groups assume that the annual figures would not have changed significantly since then but raised the possibility that the vast majority of animal experimentation in the country is being carried out at the Institute for Biological Research. In the material that it prepared for Monday’s committee session, the Knesset’s Research and Information Center stated that, “since data is not published regarding classified experiments, we are not aware what kinds of experiments are involved, who is carrying out the experiments, which animals are being used and how many of them there are.”

Israel’s animal experimentation law exempts the defense agencies, including the Institute for Biological Research, from civilian oversight. Instead it is to be carried out by the Defense Ministry committee, which includes a member representing the public at large.

The Noah animal rights group claims, however, that the law does not permit the central committee to delegate its authority to other entities or committees. It has therefore called upon the Knesset members to demand a halt to the biological research institute’s internal animal experimentation committee and that all experiments at the institute be overseen by the Defense Ministry panel.

Animal rights groups also claim that civilian companies that provide services to the Nes Tziona institute are being given security-related confidentiality protection. “Of course, we acknowledge the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of information the disclosure of which might harm state security,” Noah said in a position paper prepared for the Knesset hearing. “But a situation should not be allowed in which state security constitutes an excuse for violating the law, for lenience in overseeing activities that are not security-related and concealing information the disclosure of which would not harm security.”

For its part, the Defense Ministry said that the Nes Tziona institute operates in accordance with the law and is overseen and supervised by the Defense Ministry animal experimentation panel regarding all of its activities in this regard. “On a periodic visit by the experimentation committee at the institute more than a year ago, it was agreed that to the extent that experiments are carried out at the institute in cooperation with a commercial entity, they will be submitted for individual approval by the Defense Ministry experimentation committee,” the ministry added.

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