The Economist sounds the alarm on the consequences of divesting from non-human primate research

International competition, domestic research capacity, public health, and public policy came together in a recent article and editorial in the British-based publication of The Economist. The main thrust of the articles was to contemplate how a country’s refusal to conduct and invest in nonhuman primate research could affect the country’s access to new scientific and medical advances. In other words, The Economist connected the dots to point out that a country may not be able to offer its citizens the benefits of animal research if that country had decided to disavow animal research. It is a point we’ve made here at Speaking of Research and one that deserves  broader attention.  

The Economist’s articleAttitudes towards experimenting on monkeys are diverging” and subtitled “Many countries are growing warier, even as China races ahead” set the stage for a comparison of the EU, US, China and Japan:

And yet in East Asia, particularly China and Japan, the volume of research carried out on monkeys is growing. Most of this has been driven by creating and expanding domestic primate-research programs. Leading institutions such as the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience to focus on breeding monkeys whose genomes have been modified in order to make their physiology more like humans’ and thus more useful for studying human diseases.”

“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… In both Europe and America the number of monkeys in research has been flat or falling for the last five years.”

The article then hits the crucial point at the juncture of public policy and the societal benefits that accrue from scientific research: 

Macaque monkeys play a crucial role in this and many other fields of medical research. Image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research/Wellcome Images

“And were laboratories in China and Japan to come up with treatments for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s as a result of their studies of monkeys’ brains, it would be near impossible for Western countries to refuse to buy them to treat their citizens. Leaving others to do the dirty work of generating knowledge using means you consider to be unethical, while at the same time encouraging it by adding to demand is not taking the moral high ground. It is hypocrisy. Better for Western countries to carry out the necessary but troubling research themselves, working to the standards they deem necessary.” (emphasis added)

Given the well-documented differences between human brains and those of the most commonly  used laboratory animals (rats and mice), neuroscience is one of the most obvious fields where investment in nonhuman primate research is essential. But, in the midst of a pandemic which as cost 4,312,902 lives, and devastated the global economy, let’s not forget that facilities for breeding and conducting research on animals such as macaque monkeys and marmosets is a fundamental part of national research infrastructures, without which stringent pre-clinical testing of treatments such as vaccines cannot be done. International collaboration could be an option, but factors such as closed borders and the ban on shipments of monkeys by many airlines that have yielded to the pressure of anti-animal research organizations, make this option untenable. Although developing alternatives to animal testing from cell cultures to grown organoids to computer modeling also deserves robust investment and are a must in early therapeutic assessment and development, but as argued many times, they cannot substitute the use of animals in situations where the effects on whole organisms need to be established. Finally, what is applied research today derives from fundamental discoveries conducted as “blue sky” research decades ago, and not maintaining investment in basic science will mean the knowledge basis for the development of treatments for future health challenges will remain frozen in time.

At Speaking of Research, we support the view that nations who are vying to stay as leaders in biomedical research need to urgently consider the need to invest in facilities that allow the full cycle of development of treatments to be conducted according to the highest standards of animal welfare and ethics, including non-human primates. If nothing else, as a requirement for the biosafety of their populations, but also as a way to develop treatment for conditions carrying significant chronic burdens, such as neurological and mental health conditions.

Speaking of Research