Thursday April 11, 2002
James Meikle, health correspondent
Scientific advisers to the European Union have taken the offensive against the increasingly active protest movement against research using monkeys and apes. They say such experiments are vital in the battle against global diseases.
They argue there are no alternatives to trials that might prevent and cure conditions such as malaria, Aids, CJD, diabetes and asthma, and that researchers will move elsewhere if work stops in Europe.
The European commission's 16-member scientific steering committee, which has four members from Britain, is so worried by mounting opposition from pressure groups and some MEPs to tests using non-human primates, that it has warned of EU scientists having to rely on research done outside the EU, where they would be unable to control standards.
The committee has considered it "necessary to raise the awareness" of the commission about the implications of a "complete disappearance" of such research laboratories.
Scientists at the Institut Pasteur, Paris, and the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in Rijswijk, the Netherlands, are known to have raised concerns with committee members. The probability of animal rights demonstrations against a new Cambridge University research centre into brain diseases, where there would be monkey experiments, has scuppered its development, an indication of the growing success of the protest movement.
Experiments on primates represented a small proportion of the 2.7 million animal experiments licensed by the Home Office in 2000. There were 2,196 involving macaques, 1,468 using marmosets and tamarin monkeys, and 26 on others. No tests on chimpanzees have been conducted in Britain for years, although British scientists are involved in work using them elsewhere.
The EU committee, in a statement approved last week, accepted that "unnecessary and duplicated or redundant research using non-human primates should be avoided at all costs that the welfare conditions of the animals should be optimal, that for each research proposal it should be verified that no alternative is available and that it is ethically justified". But it considered that "for certain experiments there are no alternatives to the use of non-human primates".
The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, which has led the opposition to such research in Europe for a decade, including trying to stop airlines flying in monkeys for laboratories, said: "The industry is running scared."
Andrew Butler, UK representative of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said: "People react very strongly when they see primates being used for research. Governments have come to realise it is unacceptable and the scientific community have got to realise animals do not make a good model for human conditions."
Members of the steering committee said they were giving factual, scientific reasons for keeping primate research, and the ethical questions about the higher cognitive and social life of primates over other animals would be better considered by other commission advisers.
Keith Jones, one of the eight permanent members of the committee, and director and chief executive of the government's medicines control agency, said yesterday there were lobby groups with a serious interest in "eliminating" work using monkeys. "Sub-human primates have an important role that is actually irreplaceable in terms of public health and medical science."
James Bridges, of Surrey University, another committee member said: "Politically, it is never going to be popular to say animal experiments of any kind should be done. We all feel beaten about the head by it."
Anthony Hardy, of the Central Scientific Laboratory, York, and Ian White, a consultant dermatologist at St Thomas' hospital, London, who also chair EU scientific subcommittees, are the other British scientists.
The Research Defence Society welcomed the stand taken by the commission's advisers. "If they had held the perspective to be able to say how important this is to the future, and they said nothing about it, they would be seriously failing in their responsibility."
Aids The HIV-1 virus, agent in spreading the Aids epidemic to more than 40 million people worldwide, readily infects only humans and chimpanzees, but macaques can be made to develop a disease that is "almost indistinguishable".
Malaria Reportedly kills up to two million people a year, mainly children in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria parasites that infect monkeys are closely related to the malaria parasites suffered by humans. Vital for testing effectiveness of drugs.
Tuberculosis With a third of the world's population thought to be infected, a killer in its own right, and even more so in combination with HIV. BCG vaccine is often ineffective and TB is increasingly resistant to drugs. Tests on mice and guinea pigs are not as good as those on macaques for screening candidate vaccines.
Hepatitis Hep C is a big cause of liver disease, with more than 200 million infected worldwide, most being unknowing carriers. The only species infected other than humans is the chimpanzee. Further primate research is judged by scientists as essential. Chimpanzee tests led to a hepatitis B vaccine.
Immune-based diseases Research on rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis,
type 1 diabetes, allergies, asthma and transplant rejection, "needs" primates
to develop therapies, particularly with substances whose potential toxicity
is insufficiently clear for testing on humans.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002