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Embedding the 3Rs in COVID-19 return to research plans

The NC3Rs is committed to supporting all researchers and animal care staff to continue to conduct good science by keeping the 3Rs a priority.

Here we outline key considerations and relevant resources to support all in vivo researchers as they return to working with laboratory animals following lockdowns (e.g because of covid).

This guidance has been categorised into four equally important areas to take into consideration when embedding the 3Rs in return to research plans. It remains important to discuss local health and safety considerations with your institution and to ensure you have the relevant permissions before commencing animal research.

Considering alternatives to animal use

  • Prioritise in vitro and in silico work where this might be logistically more practical than in vivo work. With new ways of working, access to the animal facilities and support from the animal care staff may be at a premium. Animal experiments may be delayed due to this and the requirement for breeding or rederiving lines. Focusing on in vitro or in silico work and finding other opportunities to use non-animal alternatives could help to ensure that your research maintains momentum. The NC3Rs has a funding scheme to help with this shift to non-animal approaches.
  • Perform a literature search for any applicable replacement models which may be available in your area of research (use the search box on the NC3Rs our portfolio pages, and use alternatives search guides such as those provided by EURL ECVAMAnimal Welfare Information Center and Duke University).
  • Maximise the use of previously archived animal tissues and human tissue (see the NC3Rs human tissue guide).
  • For studies using tissue from animals killed by humane methods, collaborate with other researchers to share tissue and maximise output from each animal.

Prioritising and planning experiments

  • Whilst access to facilities and staff support is limited, communicate closely with animal facility managers to carefully prioritise and plan experiments (e.g. limiting procedures to breeding and short-term experiments <1 month).
  • Ideally prioritise projects based on the complexity of procedures and restrict to only well-established and characterised models where clinical signs are well understood in terms of timing, duration and management. No pilot studies or experiments with novel models should take place until the risk of further interruption to animal work has been sufficiently minimised.
  • Ensure planned experiments are consistent with the expectations of the funding bodies for the use of animals in research (see Responsibility in the use of animals in bioscience research), particularly in relation to ensuring sufficient and frequent assessments of welfare and that there are always sufficient staff available to provide support.
  • Make use of the ARRIVE guidelines as a framework for planning prioritised experiments to ensure that the results are reproducible.
  • Take this opportunity to re-evaluate the design of prioritised experiments to ensure minimal use of animals whilst maximising the scientific output. Pay particular attention to evaluating methods used to avoid bias (randomisation and blinding) and sample size calculation. Use the Experimental Design Assistant to help design robust experiments more likely to yield reliable and reproducible results.
  • As part of the review of experimental design consider whether it is possible to build in early scientific endpoints to avoid wasting animals, in the event of subsequent lockdowns interrupting research.
  • Complete risk assessments for all surgical procedures and put in place contingency plans to cover unexpected absence of any member of the surgical team, due to illness or the requirement to self-isolate. Out-of-hours surgical procedures should only be permitted under exceptional circumstances with appropriate veterinary approval, ensuring adequate provision of surgical support, post-operative care and frequency of welfare monitoring.
  • Before starting work ensure there is access to laboratories, equipment, resources and services required to support the completion of animal experiments (e.g. genotyping, storage of tissues etc). Check the expiry dates and sterility of all substances to be used for procedures (e.g. tamoxifen for injection). 

Training and competency

  • Re-read the project licence you will be working under to ensure you understand the protocols and humane endpoints.
  • Consult relevant resources to refresh your knowledge of best practice in specific procedures (e.g. Procedures with Care for video tutorials on the administration of substances to rodents and aseptic technique; and the NC3Rs e-learning modules on anaesthesia, welfare assessment and humane killing).
  • To ensure training records are up-to-date, undertake refresher training and competency assessment by a nominated trainer for all planned procedural techniques required, before starting any animal work. Familiarise yourself with the equipment and room layout before you start the work.

Sourcing and breeding of animals

  • Discuss with the animal facility manager before considering the import or export of animals.
  • Restrict colony expansion to breeding for essential prioritised experiments only.
  • Optimise breeding strategies to ensure efficient breeding and minimising surplus animals when re-establishing essential colonies.
  • Seek colony management guidance from technical staff (e.g. colony manager, animal facility manager), the NC3Rs guidance page on breeding and colony management, and/or external resources (e.g. webinars from Jackson Labs, courses from MRC Harwell, self-assessment of efficient breeding of genetically altered animals).
  • Regularly review colony performance so as not to exceed requirements for prioritised experiments.
  • Safeguard unique mouse lines through cryopreservation, to avoid the wastage of animals as part of the practice of maintaining “tick-over” colonies.