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TRADING IN CRUELTY: America and Europe outsourcing monkey experiments to Asia, as attitudes change

Cruel breeding farms in China hold around 50,000 monkeys. Alternative suppliers from Vietnam and Cambodia operate in a way that is closer to grabbing wild monkeys out of their natural habitat.

THE ECONOMIST: In 2014 a German animal-rights group called SOKO Tierschutz planted a caretaker in the laboratory of Nikos Logothetis, a neuroscientist working at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. The infiltrator secretly filmed around 100 hours of lab work over six months, some of which was later broadcast on German television. The footage showed monkeys with metal plugs grafted into their skulls—ports which researchers used to probe and study their brains. One vomits on camera, apparently as a result of damage done to blood vessels in its brain while electrodes were inserted.

The impact was immediate and lasting. Around 800 people massed outside Dr Logothetis’s lab, demanding an end to his work with monkeys. He was called a monster and a murderer. He and his family received death threats. He faced charges (which were dismissed) of breaking German animal-welfare laws. So in 2020 he announced that his laboratory would move to China. He is building a new research facility in Shanghai, working with Mu-ming Poo of the Institute of Neuroscience, one of China’s leading brain researchers, who was on the team responsible for first cloning a genetically modified primate in 2018. Dr Logothetis is packing up his Tübingen lab.

Research on primates—mostly macaque monkeys—is increasingly unpopular in Europe and America. The EU has promised that it will reconsider rules about the use of monkeys in research every five years. It wants to end all animal research at an unspecified point in the future. American lawmakers are trying to pass the Humane and Existing Alternatives in Research and Testing Sciences Act. It would encourage scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health, the country’s largest funder of biomedical research, to move away from reliance on animals. In both Europe and America the number of monkeys in research has been flat or falling for the last five years. And yet in East Asia, particularly China and Japan, the volume of research carried out on monkeys is growing…

Campaigners argue that no animal should be used for research because they cannot give informed consent. Julia Baines, who works on science policy at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal-rights group, suggests that all animals, including primates, can be replaced in biomedical research by a combination of in vitro studies (carried out in Petri dishes and test tubes without relying on living creatures), computer simulations and consensual human trials.

Others, such as researchers at the Centre for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University, advocate replacing animal experimentation where that seems possible and refining how it is used where it does not. Monkeys make up just one in every 2,000 lab animals, according to Stefan Treue, a neuroscientist who works on them at the University of Göttingen in Germany. But they generate by far the most controversy. The social nature of their lives and their intelligence—which is why they are so useful for research—also help explain why such experiments are so troubling…

“China holding onto its primates fits into a long-term strategy it announced in 2015: the China 2025 policy,” says Kirk Leech of the European Animal Research Association. Understanding the brain was one of the key areas of scientific research for that policy. To achieve it, China needs more monkeys. Dr Treue says China has decided that research primates are a strategic resource. Exports are unlikely to revert to their previous levels.

This leaves Europe and America in a bind. The farms in China are well respected by the research community. Alternative suppliers from Vietnam and Cambodia operate in a way that is closer to grabbing wild monkeys out of their natural habitat. This is both more traumatic for the animal and less useful for research, as the health and age of such animals varies. Increasing the harms and reducing the usefulness of any research exacerbates the ethical dilemma of using monkeys. SOURCE…


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