The ban on using chimpanzees and other great apes in scientific experiments should be relaxed in a global health emergency, the head of the Medical Research Council (MRC) has said.
Colin Blakemore, an outspoken advocate of animal experiments, said that the existing ban on great apes makes no moral sense because it degrades the clear boundary between humans and animals.
Professor Blakemore, a distinguished brain scientist at Oxford University, said that he is opposed in principle to the ban on experiments with great apes, although he sees no immediate need to lift it. "I'm not entirely comfortable with the decision absolutely to ban the use of great apes," Dr Blakemore said at the launch of an MRC pamphlet explaining the benefits of primate research yesterday.
"I can see no current necessity for the use of great apes, and I'm pleased that they're not being used and that every effort is being made to reduce the use of other primates. But 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," Professor Blakemore said.
Great apes - but not monkeys - were banned from medical research in Britain in 1998, although medical experiments on chimps have continued at research facilities in the United States, Japan and the Netherlands.
Professor Blakemore said that under certain circumstances, such as the emergence of a lethal pandemic virus that only affected the great apes, including man, then experiments on chimps, orang-utans and even gorillas may become necessary.
But the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), which is launching its own report into experiments on primates, said that Professor Blakemore's stance is backward-looking. "The Government was absolutely right in 1998 to recognise that no great ape should ever be subjected to confinement in a laboratory and experimentation: nothing will change that," said Alistair Currie, BUAV's campaigns director.
"What makes it wrong to experiment on people is what makes it wrong to experiment on apes - they have needs too, much like ours, and suffer too, much like us, to ever be used as tools," he added.
Decades of research on Aids vaccines have used chimps and other primates, yet these experiments have not produced an effective form of vaccination for Aids, Mr Currie argued.
"If some hypothetical virus threatened half the population, half the population would almost certainly be dead before chimp research produced the answer. The MRC, of all people, should be investing in research that works, not trying to turn back the clock."
The BUAV is calling for a ban on all primate research, arguing that there is no biological rationale for morally discriminating between humans and all other primates. The organisation said that the pain and distress caused to monkeys outweighs any benefits that may come out of such research - a view dismissed by the medical establishment.
Professor Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, which co-published the pamphlet, Primates in Medical Research, with the MRC, said that primates are rarely and only reluctantly used in medical research. Of the 2.7 million animals used in medical research each year in Britain, just 0.1 per cent are primates, mostly marmosets and macaques, and the vast majority are rats and mice.
Professor Tipu Aziz, a consultant neurosurgeon at Oxford University, said that the limited number of experiments on primates have nevertheless been critical for medicine. "I have been using primates for the last 16 years because of my long interest in Parkinson's disease," Professor Aziz said. "These are patients that cannot move, trapped inside a trembling body."
He said primates had proved crucial in the development of treatments for Parkinson's and that they may even one day provide the key to the repair of the human brain. "I use primates, I have always used primates and have no qualms about it," Professor Aziz added.
Professor Roger Lemon, director of the UCL Institute of Neurology in London, said that primate research has produced critical breakthroughs for the benefit of patients with devastating illnesses. "I do not think there is any difficulty in experimenting where non-human primates are needed and will continue to be needed to study models of debilitating diseases ... Primate models are only used when animals such as rats and mice cannot be used," he said.
A divisive issue
For: Colin Blakemore, chief executive, Medical Research Council
"Research on monkeys is, quite rightly, a particularly sensitive issue. That is why the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council, the two biggest funders of medical research in this country, have published an open account of how and why monkeys are used in some of their research. They are used only when no other species and no alternative approach can provide the answers to questions about such conditions as Alzheimer's, stroke, Parkinson's, spinal injury, hormone disorders, and vaccines for HIV. Research on great apes is banned in the UK and campaigners are calling for this ban to be extended to monkeys. But there had been no research on great apes for many years. In the case of monkeys, the loss to medical progress would be enormous."
Against: Dr Gill Langley, scientific consultant to the BUAV
"Primates have been subjected to research for decades, but today science itself demonstrates why this simply can't continue. Any suggestion that great apes could be used again in this country flies in the face of compelling evidence of their mental and emotional capacities, behavioural needs and ability to suffer. Primates suffer from confinement, isolation and experimentation beyond anything previously realised. The stress they experience damages the very systems scientists hope to study. The US Food and Drug Administration now acknowledges that of all the drugs which pass tests on animals, including primates, 92 per cent will never reach the market, mainly because of safety or efficacy problems. This is an appalling indictment of 21st-century science."