The wildlife television presenter Saba Douglas-Hamilton and primatologist Jane Goodall are fighting back against a proposal by Professor Colin Blakemore, the head of the official Medical Research Council, that the eight-year-old ban on using the apes - chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos - should be lifted in a global health emergency. Sir David Attenborough has also come out against the testing.
Professor Blakemore - a brain scientist at Oxford University, and an outspoken supporter of animal experiments - said yesterday that he was opposed in principle to banning the tests on the great apes, which share more than 96 per cent of their DNA with humans, because it muddles the boundary between people and animals. He said: "I worry about the principle of where the moral boundaries lie. There is only one very secure definition that can be made and that is between our species and others."
And he added that, though he was "pleased" that experiments are not being carried out on them at present, they might be needed if a pandemic virus emerged that affected both them and humans.
But conservationists hit back, saying that the tests would be inhumane. Saba Douglas-Hamilton told The Independent on Sunday: "As humans, we are also great apes, so where does that leave us ethically? Apes share many characteristics with us that we consider to be fundamentally human - like compassion, empathy, self-awareness and a sense of mortality. It is difficult to see how medical testing on great apes is going to be of any benefit to them, if at all."
Dr Goodall also believes that the experiments - banned in Britain since 1998, but still conducted in Japan, the United States and the Netherlands - are unethical. She says: "Most people do not know - and do not want to know - the grim reality of what happens to non-human primates in laboratories. Chimpanzees have amazing social, mental and emotional similarities to us. It is an outrage to incarcerate these wonderful beings in tiny cages and subject them to repeated intensive techniques, knowing that they can anticipate what will happen."
Sir David Attenborough has also come out against the tests. He said: "I am in favour of a European ban on the use of apes in invasive medical research."
The UN Environment Programme says that all great ape species face a high risk of extinction within the next 50 years.