Two weeks ago, nine scientific societies, including the American Physiological Society, the Society for Neuroscience, and the American Academy for Neurology, published a white paper entitled “The critical role of nonhuman primates in medical research“. The paper, which notes how nonhuman primates are critical to all stages of research, provides a huge number of examples of medical breakthroughs made possible thanks to studies in nonhuman primates. Among the paper’s appendices is a list of over fifty medical advances from the last fifty years alone; these include: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B; and surgeries such as heart and lung transplants. This is no small feat considering the group of species accounts for around only 0.1% of animal research in most countries (that provide data).
On September 2nd, 2016, John P. Gluck wrote an op-ed for The New York Times called “Second Thoughts of an Animal Researcher“. Gluck is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico. However, this Op-Ed has not come out of the blue. Gluck has long worked alongside PETA and other animal rights groups to condemn nonhuman primate studies. This op-ed is timed for just before today’s NIH workshop on “Ensuring continued responsible research with non-human primates” – a workshop that PETA is petitioning congress about. The article explains why Gluck stopped conducting animal research, his ethical stance against it, and concludes by saying:
“The federal government should establish a national commission to develop the principles to guide decisions about the ethics of animal research. We already accept that ethical limits on experiments involving humans are important enough that we are willing to forgo possible breakthroughs. There is no ethical argument that justifies not doing the same for animals.”
This is disingenuous of Gluck. The strict regulatory system that exists in the US, and most other developed nations, is the very embodiment of principles aimed to guide decisions on when and how we should conduct studies on nonhuman primates (as well as other species). Some countries have specific regulations surrounding primate research (e.g. the UK considers them a specially protected species and researchers must explain why no other species can be used instead). In the US, all primate research is governed by the Animal Welfare Act (enforced by the USDA), and any research receiving federal funds will also be subject to the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Animals (PHS policy; enforced by OLAW). The PHS Policy also endorses the US Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Use in Testing, Research and Training, which forms the foundation for ethical and humane care and use of laboratory animals in the US. Every research protocol must be approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee – a group made up of including scientists, veterinarians and lay-persons – who review and evaluate the study, recommending ways in which it could be improved (both scientifically and from an animal welfare perspective).
Other commentators have noticed this as well. As Wesley J Smith writes in the National Review:
Gluck would have readers believe there are no strict ethical regulations that govern primate research. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Animal Welfare Act already has many stringent requirements governing research on monkeys-as the law should-including cost-benefit analyses, the requirement that any pain experiments cause be palliated, and the requirement that oversight boards approve the purpose and approach of proposed experiments.
Ultimately, Gluck’s article reads as an ethical objection to animal research with some scientific gloss. The heart of his objections is Singer-esque in nature (he mentions Peter Singer earlier in the article). He almost directly condemns our different treatment of humans and nonhuman primates as speciesist:
The ethical principle that many of us used to justify primate experiments seemed so obvious: If you are ethically prevented from conducting a particular experiment with humans because of the pain and risks involved, the use of animals is warranted. Yet research spanning the spectrum from cognitive ethology to neuroscience has made it clear that we have consistently underestimated animals’ mental complexity and pain sensitivity, and therefore the potential for harm. The obvious question is why the harms experienced by these animals, which will be at least similar to humans, fail to matter? How did being a different member of the primate grouping that includes humans automatically alter the moral universe?
No doubt our understanding of the cognitive abilities of animals has improved, and with it has come a greater appreciation for their capacity to suffer. We are a long way from the 17th century philosophers, like Malebranche, who thought animals could not suffer. Our greater understanding of the capacity of animals to suffer pain or distress informs the way we treat animals in laboratories. For example, it was not until the early 1990s that the USDA adopted regulations requiring group housing of nonhuman primates (DiVincenti and Wyatt, 2011), this was thanks to many years of studies showing that nonhuman primate welfare was best met by keeping primates in social groups. As such, it is wrong for Gluck to claim that harm to animals “fail to matter”. While we may give animals a different consideration compared to humans (it is legal to eat animals and keep them as pets), it would be wrong to say they exist outside our moral sphere. The UK’s House of Lords set up a select committee in 2002 to look at animal studies; when assessing the ethics they concluded (s 2.5):
The unanimous view of the Select Committee is that it is morally acceptable for human beings to use other animals, but that it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary or avoidable suffering.
This is the heart of sensible moral consideration – that we should minimise the suffering of animals wherever possible while realising that we also have a moral imperative to conduct animal studies to reduce greater suffering among humans and animals.
Primates at the Californian National Primate Research Center. Reproduced with permission.
And there is no doubt we have a moral imperative. To return to the recent white paper:
Research with monkeys is critical to increasing our knowledge of how the human brain works and its role in cognitive, motor and mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and depression. This research is also fundamental to understanding how to prevent and treat emerging infectious diseases like Zika and Ebola. NHP research is uncovering critical information about the most common and costly metabolic disorder in the U.S. – type 2 diabetes – as well as the obesity that leads to most cases.
Without NHP research, we lose our ability to learn better ways to prevent negative pregnancy outcomes, including miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. This research is also helping scientists to uncover information that makes human organ transplants easier and more accessible, literally giving new life to those whose kidneys, hearts and lungs are failing.
The eradication of these diseases is not worth giving up on. For some animals such research could be the difference between survival and eradication. Ebola has a 95% mortality rate for gorillas. An outbreak in 1995 reportedly killed more than 90% of the gorillas at a national park in Gabon. Overall it is estimated that one third of all the world’s gorillas have been wiped out by Ebola in the last 20 years. If nonhuman primate research (primarily in monkeys rather than great apes), can come up with a vaccine then it will be both animals and humans who can benefit. Humans are unique in that they are the only species with the cognitive capability of making a decision of this magnitude. In the words of Wesley J Smith:
This is the difficult fact that can’t be avoided: We need primate research if we are going to advance science, relieve human suffering, and bring new treatments into medicine’s armamentarium. At some point, we have to decide whether to help humans or not experiment on monkeys.
Looking forward to today’s NIH workshop (which will be streamed live online), it would seem they have struck the right tone. Reviewing the evidence, reviewing the policies, and looking to see what can be improved – that is the essence of science – while still appreciating that the duty of the NIH is to improve the health of a nation.
[T]he Office of Science Policy is taking the lead in planning a workshop on September 7th, 2016 that will convene experts in science, policy, ethics, and animal welfare. Workshop participants will discuss the oversight framework governing the use of non-human primates in NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research endeavors. At this workshop, participants will also explore the state of the science involving non-human primates as research models and discuss the ethical principles underlying existing animal welfare regulations and policies. NIH is committed to ensuring that research with non-human primates can continue responsibly as we move forward in advancing our mission to seek fundamental knowledge and enhance health outcomes.