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The supply and use of primates in the EU
One of the more important animal research issues being discussed in Europe is the supply and use of non-human primates in research and testing. The figures published in the 1991 European Union (EU) statistics show that there were 8,545 such primates used in the EU that year, with the majority being used in the UK, Germany and France.
The use of primates
The objections to the use of primates comes mostly from campaigning groups who have targeted this issue. However, the scientific justification for using primates cannot be so easily dismissed. A number of areas of virology (including some AIDS research and vaccine development and testing), biotechnology product development and neurobiology research are currently completely dependent on the use of non-human primates. The pressure against primate use has received some support from more respected voices2 but the arguments presented have not been found convincing. Indeed, it is likely that even the campaigning groups recognise the strength of the scientific justification for using primates and they have focused their main activities on secondary issues, such as supply and transport of primates, the use of wild-caught animals, etc to put pressure on the main issue.
The supply of primates
The strategy of the campaigning groups on the matter of primate supply has been for them to campaign against the airlines that transport the animals and, by threat of consumer boycotts, force the airlines to adopt a ban on carrying primate cargoes. This campaign appears to have been very successful with only a handful of airlines still accepting primates for transport. There is little objective data on the effect this has had, but there is considerable shared experience amongst animal suppliers and users which allows some conclusions to be made. There does not appear to have been any noticeable decrease in the number of primates imported into the EU for research and testing. Most users of old-world primates (about 90% of which need to be imported) report an increase in animal use. In the UK (Europe's main primate user), a survey of user establishments3 found that the number of old-world primates used, and thus imported, has increased by about 50% during 1994-5, at the height of the airline campaign. Despite their success in restricting the numbers of airlines which transport primates, it is clear that this campaign has been a failure.
The issue of the welfare of laboratory primates is, quite correctly, a matter of serious concern. The animal welfare view on this issue is that because these animals are so neurophysiologically close to humans and because there is a debate about whether some of the more advanced non-human primates may have rudimentary self-awareness, we should pay particular attention to their welfare. This position has a body of support from within the scientific community and there is a growing acceptance that primates deserve greater welfare concern that other species. The existing European regulations on primate husbandry provide for minimum standards which differ significantly from current ideas of 'best practice' in this area (see accompanying article Primate welfare standards in EU research)
The other main effect of the antivivisection airline campaign has been to adversely effect the welfare of the primates being imported by increasing their journey time. The majority of the primates used in the EU are bred in centres in the Phillippines, Mauritius, China and Indonesia. Previously, they could be flown direct from these countries to the international airport nearest the recipient. However, they can now only be flown to one or two EU airports, because the few remaining carriers only fly to those cities, and they then have to be transported by road for the rest of the journey. It has been estimated by some suppliers that this can double the journey time for these animals. It is accepted that long-distance transport is particularly stressful for these animals and there is growing concern about the effect of the airline campaign on these animals. Some of the main animal welfare organisations, notably the RSPCA in the UK and the French Society for the Protection of Animals have been criticised of the negative effects of this campaign on the welfare of research primates.
There is considerable pressure against the use of wild-caught primates in the EU and this is in line with the hopes and wishes of animal researchers themselves. Where there is a choice between a purpose-bred primate and a similar wild-caught primate, there are strong scientific and ethical reasons for choosing the purpose-bred animal. If it were possible to eliminate the use of wild-caught primates in research entirely, without impeding important research or testing, this would be greatly welcomed by animal researchers. However, there are a number of specific instances in which there are some real and potential problems to achieving a total ban on the use of wild-caught animals. There are a few areas of research where very particular species or sub-species of primates are required. There is a sub-species of baboon which naturally has photo-induced epilepsy. These animals, which are not bred in captivity, play an important part of epilepsy research.
Another problem concerns those areas of testing where all the background data has been obtained from baboons. There is an extremely limited supply of purpose-bred baboons in the world (but numerous feral baboons which are an agricultural pest in some countries). If such a study requires comparative background data, the choice is either to use baboons for the study or to reproduce a significant part of the background data by extra studies on purpose bred macaques. This would mean doing extra primate experiments which many would consider unjustified.
The batch production of polio vaccine in African Green Monkey Kidney cells requires the use of significant numbers of this wild-caught vervet. It is not bred in captivity in significant numbers. Until polio is eliminated from the world (which should not be too many years in the future), these animals will still be required.
How do we deal with this problem? Banning the use of wild-caught primates in the EU is unlikely to prevent these animals from being used in the studies described above. Since the scientific rationale for the studies is sound, it is highly likely that the studies would simply be conducted outside the EU.
The hunt for a solution
Some solutions to the dual problem of primate supply and welfare have been proposed. European Primate Resource Network strongly supports the idea that a long term aim should be to breed all the primates needed with the EU, and concentrae on primate studies at centres of excellent and optimise primate research and minimise the numbers of animals required4. There does not appear to be a significant problem with the supply of the marmoset, the main type of new world monkey used in research and testing in the EU. Most sources confirm that we already breed enough to meet the EU requirement although it may be important to take steps to co-ordinate supply and demand. However, the majority of the primates used in the EU are old-world animals and we currently only breed about 10% of the numbers used. There would be very large costs involved in setting up breeding programmes to be able to supply the estimated requirement of approximately 5,000 macaques a year for the EU. Commentators also point out that it would take between 5 and 10 years, or possibly longer, to get such a programme up to the required capacity.
The Primate Vaccine Evaluation Network has proposed that some primate research should be moved from the West to the countries where the primates are bred. This is a possibility, but it would run against the prevailing sentiment, which is to keep EU research in the EU and, in any event, would only account for a fraction of the total primate use.
- Commission of the European Communities (1994) First Report form the Commission to the Council and European Parliament on the Statistics on the Number of Animals used for Experimental and Other Scientific Purposes. Com(94) 195 final
- Balls, M (1995) The use of Non-human Primates as Laboratory Animals in Europe: Towards the Zero Option. ATLA 23, 284-286
- Davies, B (1996) Primate campaign revived despite failure. RDS News, July 1996 p3
- Anon. (1995) European Primate Resources Network. EBRA Bulletin March 1995 p12
- PVEN (1995) Recommendations, Guidelines and Information for Biomedical Research Involving Non-human Primates with Emphasis on Health problems of Developing Countries