The pharmaceutical industry may not be particularly high profile in terms of its CSR efforts, but several drug makers are among the ranks of the most responsible companies out there. Pharma companies took three of the top twenty spots in this year’s Newsweek Green Rankings; two were among the top ten. But these companies have a dirty little secret. Despite their dedication to social responsibility, they still kill hundreds of thousands of animals each year to test their products, and no big pharma companies have really taken steps to find viable alternatives. That is, until now.
A recent announcement from the Danish firm Novo Nordisk revealed that the company has been working hard to find viable alternatives to animal testing for the past ten years. And its efforts have finally paid off. As of November 28th of this year, the company ceased the practice of using live animals for quality testing of existing products.
In 1994, Novo Nordisk was one of the first global companies to put out a sustainability report, and in 2004, was one of the first to publish an integrated report that highlights both financial and nonfinancial results in one cohesive document. Novo Nordisk’s most recent report doesn’t go into much depth on the issue of animal testing. The company simply states that it “continuously works toward reducing, refining and replacing experiments on animals and to improve animal welfare.” Novo does report the number of animals it purchases as part of its non-financial data. That figure was 62,927 in 2010, a 10 percent increase over the year before.
Given the small amount of attention paid to the issue of animal testing in the report, I was somewhat surprised to learn how dedicated Novo Nordisk has been to finding alternatives. In the 90s the company reduced the total number of animals used by nearly 70 percent. Now it has developed new laboratory technology that can test for drug quality by measuring biological activity in animal cells in a test tube. This new method is actually an improvement over traditional animal testing in that it produces a smaller range of results and provides greater precision and reliability.
However, in order to start using these tests, Novo Nordisk had to get approval from health authorities all over the world. This was no small task. Each drug registration had to be amended in 200 countries, each with different regulatory bodies with varying degrees of acceptance to these new testing methods. Novo Nordisk is leading the way on this issue because it is the only drug company that has been pushing regulators and working to convince them that these tests are just as effective as the alternative.
Unfortunately, the use of animals for production control purposes is small in comparison to the other uses of animals for testing, most notably within the discovery and development of new products. Efforts are being undertaken to reduce the number of animals being used but according to Novo Nordisk’s Chief Science Officer, the reliance on animals for testing the safety of new drugs will continue because it is driven by regulatory demand as well as good science. As such, it is very unlikely that this practice will be eliminated in our lifetime without a significant technological breakthrough.
In the absence of a way to completely eliminate the use of animals, Novo Nordisk is working to improve the lives of those that it uses. Most of the animals used for testing are either mice or rats, but the larger laboratory animals include rabbits, goats, pigs and even dogs. The company recognizes that these are social animals and have started housing them together to try to enrich their environment. Novo Nordisk also admits that this is not the same as a normal life but that it is a significant improvement over the treatment that lab animals have been given in the past. The video below, which discusses the company’s progress on this issue in-depth, shows footage of cute, healthy beagles running around what looks to be a farm.
In addition to looking out for the quality of life of its laboratory animals, Novo Nordisk is also taking human health and safety into consideration. The company recognizes that the new cell tests it has developed involve a huge amount of work for employees and are working to reduce the burden it puts on them by instituting the use of robots and automating the process whenever possible.
The next step for Novo Nordisk is to work to spread this new technology to other drug producers to further eliminate the use of animals for quality testing purposes. This can be accomplished through open collaboration between companies where information and data is shared and new tools are developed that the entire industry can adopt in order to spare the lives of even more animals.
Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on Twitter @karameredith.