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Brothers of Man

From Economist.com
March 2009

The European Commission may ban the use of great apes

Kanzi is a male bonobo, now 28, who was born in captivity and raised at the language research centre at Georgia State University in America.

He was the first great ape to demonstrate that he could understand human speech. He has a vocabulary of 500 words. His comprehension of the English language matches that of a child aged two and a half.

Other captive great apes are less fortunate. These creatures have not been anthropomorphized and their names do not appear in scientific literature. They include the chimpanzees being used to develop a vaccine for hepatitis C in America. Scientists are making use of chimpanzees because they are the only animals other than humans to suffer from the disease.

In Europe no great apes have been used in scientific research since at least 2002. Legislation drafted by the European Commission now proposes to outlaw their use completely, except in certain dire circumstances. If bird flu mutated to become both deadly and highly infectious in humans, as some fear it will, it could unleash a pandemic that threatened millions of lives. The proposed legislation would allow potential vaccines for pandemic flu to be tested on great apes. Their use would also be permitted if some deadly disease emerged which affected, say, chimpanzees only and which threatened the future survival of the species.

Several animal-rights organisations have seized on the drafting of legislation as the moment to campaign for a ban on the use not only of great apes but of all primates, including monkeys. “We are primates,” the literature declares. It is true that humans are great apes, and great apes are primates, but the claim risks blurring the distinction too far. Primates are also mammals, as are most farm animals, but the welfare standards in European laboratories are far higher than those on farms and in abattoirs.

Indeed Europe has the most stringent rules on the use of animals in research. These were established more than 20 years ago. Since then many more countries have joined the European Union and, as a condition of membership, have had to agree to the rules on animal welfare.

About 12m animals were used in experiments in Europe in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available. Less than 0.1% of these were primates. Among them were 8,208 old-world monkeys (mostly macaques) and 1,564 new-world monkeys (mostly marmosets). Overall, 12 European countries used old-world monkeys, five experimented on new-world monkeys and two—France and Germany—made use of 677 prosimians, which are primates but neither monkeys nor apes, and include the bushbaby.

The European Science Foundation, which represents government-funded scientists in European countries, is against the commission’s proposed ban. Its scientists say they do not wish to use great apes, merely to retain the option. If a pandemic did emerge, speed would be of the essence. Yet the question is probably academic. Because there are no breeding colonies of great apes in Europe, there would be no animals on which to test potential vaccines, should a pandemic emerge.

A more compelling argument for retaining the possibility of using great apes in scientific experiments concerns who should benefit from the knowledge so gained. It may be noble for Europeans to ban tests on great apes. But it would be hypocritical to accept a vaccine developed with the help of the same tests simply because they had been carried out on chimpanzees in America.


To see how primates are abused in labs, visit our image gallery.

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