Is it morally Acceptable to Experiment Mainly on Non-Human Primates, Instead of Other Animals?

Drugs are important in our world as they help to cure many of the vicious diseases or infections we may have. Without them, the life expectancy in this country could not be as high as it is today and we would have died at a very young age. The ongoing development of medical drugs ensures that humans suffer minimal or no side-effects to the drugs that they use. Also, new and evolving industries bring further needs for new chemicals and drugs. For all these reasons and more, it is very important to ensure the safety of these chemicals/drugs on human health. This leads to the question: is it necessary to test these chemicals on non-human primates (NHPs), as they may be harmed in the process due to side effects that may occur? A more fundamental question is whether it is morally acceptable to experiment on NHPs. Some people may agree, as it helps to save lives, whereas others may not if it goes against their morals. In this essay, I will discuss these questions, as well as give my own views on them.

Experimenting on primates is one of the main ways in which we can ensure the safety of these new and evolving chemicals and drugs on human health. These NHP tests also help to reduce or eliminate unwanted side effects. The development and use of these chemicals (either in drugs or consumer goods) is vital as we rely on them so heavily. Despite being desperately needed, in order to be a successful drug/chemical, the substance needs to go through a lengthy process and many expensive stages (which I will discuss later on) before it can be given to humans. One of these stages is animal testing, as many people believe that we should test on animals instead on other people as we have more authority over them.

In 1871, a man named Charles Darwin released a book called “The Descent of Man”. In this book, he suggested a theory that many scientists now believe to be true: that apes and humans have evolved along different lines but from the same ape-like animals [8]. At the time many people considered his views ludicrous; however, we humans are actually part of the family group of the biological order of primates known as Hominidae. This means that we do share some biological properties and DNA with non-human primates. Due to this similarity with NHPs, scientists would expect the results from experimenting on primates to be very similar to tests on humans. So, surely, this would mean that experimenting more on them would be justified and also morally acceptable, as they are the species genetically closest to us?

One reason why it may be considered reasonable for humans to experiment on primates is, because before a product reaches its consumers, it must have been tested on something else; otherwise, it would not be safe to use and could harm or even kill someone. Safety is a must-have when developing a new medicine, as no one would want to try something that could be dangerous if it was not tested on anyone. It could lead to death or serious side effects which could severely harm you. When I conducted my surveys, it was clear that the majority of people would not take medicine that was not tested on some sort of animal [14]. Primates are needed since they are the type of mammal genetically closest to us, as well as having similar physical traits and immune systems [3]. Without these primates, there would be more chance that a vaccine/drug will not work on humans or even have a toxic effect on them. Not only this: there are deadly diseases in the world such as malaria or tuberculosis for which we can only give effective vaccines by experimenting on non-human primates. Why would we not want to take a chance to find a cure for these deadly diseases, in the hope that it could save millions of lives, by not performing experiments/testing on primates?

Another reason for the moral acceptability of NHP experimentation is because the medicine that scientists create goes through many processes before actually being tested on a NHP. [15] Firstly, after the disease is identified, scientists isolate the protein. In this time, a number of processes occur such as genomics and HTS (high throughput screening) as well as virtual screening so that scientists can find the compound which can blind to protein and hence suppress/cure the disease. Once it has been found, a variety of models are created by scientists so that they can check the compound and work out whether the cure would work. Some of the models created include things such as PBPK modelling (physiologically-based pharmakenetic model) which is a mathematical model allowing scientists to see the exposure of chemicals in relation to a particular target. By doing this, scientists can estimate how many doses of the chemical need to be taken and how often (e.g.: 2 or 3 times a day). Then, and only then, do they move onto animal testing. So, surely, it should be acceptable to permit this NHP testing when scientists have taken such time and care in their previous experiments to ensure that it works well for the first time – for the primates’ sake and for ours.

There are those who use the Bible (particularly Genesis) to argue that we have the authority to rule over any animal and to do whatever we wish with them, as God gave us that power. By this argument, if we want to experiment on NHPs, we should be able to do so. If we feel that we should experiment on primates for the greater good of the world, there should be no problem, since as long as they are used morally without being abused, it is worth it.

Moreover, tests are very carefully regulated on grounds of humanity. In most industries and universities, experiments on primates are only allowed carefully and under strict conditions to ensure minimal suffering. Primates are even given enjoyable activities for their free time, such as running or swimming [11]. This shows the public that, even if we were to experiment mainly on primates instead of other animals, they still have time to relax and chose preferred activities, enjoying free will.

Many scientific organisations, such as the Scientific Committee on Health and Environment Risks (SCHER), argue that animal experimentation is necessary and give a utilitarian response [4]. Many scientists argue that, if methods other than NHP testing were introduced, they would not be as effective and might even delay the time for a vaccine to be created [10]. If you take, for example, a human disease such as Hepatitis C (from which over 100 million people suffer), a NHP is the only creature other than man that has the ability to suffer from this disease. If we were not to not experiment on them, then much of the research that scientists have already carried out would be rendered pointless and many innocent people would die. This, again, emphasises the main point that experimenting on primates provides a quicker vaccine to a disease which can, in turn, save more lives. So surely this can only be a good thing?

Another concern in relation to NHP testing is that those primates are taken away from their mothers and from their families, causing distress. Although this is sometimes true, there are testing locations where people have created better environments and, even, artificial mothers for the young primates which they recognise and accept as being their mothers [13]. So it would make it appear acceptable to experiment on mainly primates because those involved want to make the NHPs feel at home, and this may help people to feel that it is more morale, as although they may conflict pain on primates, they are also doing whatever possible to try and make the NHP feel happy. Another point is that without animal testing, many people would be cautious to any medication they would take. To back up this point I also conducted a survey to try, and one of the questions was to find out whether people would try medicine that wasn’t tested on primates. The majority of people responded by saying that they wouldn’t, clearly showing then that we should experiment mainly on primates [14].

Whilst I acknowledge the importance of NHP testing, I believe that we should, also, look at other alternatives. There are several in-vitro assays (test tube testing) which can help in extrapolating and simulating what may happen to humans. These include things such as 3T3 Neutral Red Uptake Phototoxicity test (which uses cells which are grown in agriculture to try and detect possible irritation to the skin and uses human skin leftover from surgical procedures) [1]. In the last few years, there have even been great advances in in-silico methods whereby computer modelling and historical human clinical data, etc can help to better understand past data and also make predictions of the likely effects of new chemicals on human health. When such alternatives exist, it becomes clear that it is not always morally acceptable to use primates. When a safe and effective alternative exists, to use primates would simply cause them unnecessary pain.

During drug discovery, thousands of different chemicals are tested through different stages before animal testing, in order to select quality lead chemicals. Only these selected chemicals are then subjected to animal testing. This is all intended to maximise the chances that the drug works first time around, with minimal risk to the user. Although this may be true, given the choice, it is almost guaranteed that NHPs would not want to take that risk with their own lives – just because something is said to be guaranteed to work. If it was your own life, I could bet that you would not want to take chance and possibly kill yourself. Therefore, arguing that it is morally acceptable because scientists spent so long developing the drug still does not make it right, as we are still not sure if it will work for sure.

Earlier, I mentioned the argument that God gave us the power to rule over animals in the bible. This may be true, but it does not mean that we should go against animals’ rights by capturing them and forcing them to conduct experiments. Personally, I feel that God did give us this power, but we should not abuse it by doing things such as this. It even mentioned that when NHPs aren’t conducting experiments they are free to do what they want, yet I am struggling to see how being able to do a bit of climbing in a laboratory (while possibly at the same time dealing with the side effects from the latest experiment) is better than being in their natural habitat with their families. God created them too and cares for them, and we can see from things like the 10 commandments that conflicting pain on his creatures does not help us to be good stewards of earth. It does not feel morally acceptable to harm one of God’s creatures, especially due to the fact that there are alternatives out there, and we are instead focusing on harming primates instead of trying to reduce the amount we use.

Later on, I discussed how there are some cases where NHPs are the only suitable testing method in creating vaccines for diseases such as Hepatitis C. This is true but the question is whether it is morally acceptable to mainly experiment on primates. I believe that this shows where primates must be used but that does not mean that we should use them where there are other available and effective alternatives. That would not be morally acceptable, as we are not considering NHPs rights and are doing something that is unnecessary. Not only that, but there are even some rules that scientists use whenever they can, known as the 3Rs (Reduction, Refinement and Replacement). The first R (reduction) is trying to reduce the amount of primates that are used in animal experiments. We can do this by improving experimental techniques. The next R (refinement) is trying to make the way NHPs are cared for better by doing things such as improving their living conditions. Finally the last R (replacement) is concerned with trying to replace methods that use primates with other alternatives. Some of these alternatives can include studying human volunteers or experimenting on cell cultures, instead of whole animals. This shows us that scientists are not focused mainly on primate experimentation but realise that we should seek alternatives and minimise primate’s use in experiments.

Towards the end of the opposing argument, I mention that, if young NHPs are separated from their mothers, it does not matter as scientists sometimes create artificial mothers made from cloth which primates recognise as their mothers. This is immoral and ridiculous. Humans should realise this. Obviously, a child would want to be with its real mother and not be fooled into thinking like this. Also, baby primates that are born in laboratories are usually separated from their mothers within 3 days [12]. Professor Charles R. Magel said, ‘ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: “Because the animals are like us.” Ask the experimenters why it is morally okay to experiment on animals and the answer is: “Because the animals are not like us.” Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction.’ Magel is stating that animal experimenters avoid taking any blame when doing so, even though they realise that what they are doing is wrong.

There are even more reasons for why it is not morally acceptable to mainly experiment on animals. One reason is if a primate is needed, the cost you would need to pay would be much higher than exploiting other alternatives such as using human skin leftover from surgical procedures. Rhesus monkeys cost roughly £20 each, a baby chimp £300, and a young orang-utan cost roughly £2000 [13]. So, clearly then, other methods may be cheaper, as well as more effective. So why should we mainly experiment on primates, if the expense is so great? John P. Gluck said: ‘The lack of ethical self-examination is common and generally involves the denial or avoidance of animal suffering, resulting in the dehumanization of researchers and the ethical degradation of their research subjects [7].’ This shows again that people are mainly against experimenting on NHPs and are instead trying to focus more on the 3Rs (Reduction, Refinement and Replacement).

Primate experiments can also be inhumane and vicious. An example of this was in the 1960s and 1970s, when chimps were made to smoke cigarettes, so that scientists could test for lung cancer [8]. Many primates can even lose their sanity and 90 percent of laboratory primates experience psychological stress] [12. We humans should stick up for primates and think about their rights. We should move away from the pre-existing primate option instead of not wanting to switch because it is too much work.

If scientists cannot exploit other alternatives, there are still things that can be done to reduce the amount of primates used significantly. This can include reusing the same NHP in different experiments or by making the tests for reproductive toxicity better. Both would result in fewer primates being needed. There are an endless number of options that can be pursued and they should be in order to save NHP’s lives.

To conclude, I personally believe that experimenting mainly on primates is not morally acceptable. There are many alternatives, which can be easily exploited and can be as or more effective. So surely then it would only be immoral to harm God’s innocent creatures and if scientists exploited these new methods and follow the 3R’s (reduction, refinement and replacement) then new vaccines could still be created but with less harm put on primates. Not only that, but if we look at how much it would cost to experiment on primates, that would also lead us to believe that what people are doing to primates is wrong and although there are some areas in which primates must be used, that does not mean that they should be used in other areas. Although there are reasons to support the idea, that primates should be used, it does not outweigh the reasons against. The question was whether it was morally acceptable to mainly experiment on primates, not to sometimes experiment on them, and using NHPs in avoidable experiments is immoral as well as unnecessary.

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