The Economist on monkeys in neuroscience research


The growing shortage of monkeys needed for biomedical research due to China’s export ban and growing worldwide demand has been examined in The Economist magazine.


In a leader article, accompanying a feature that quotes EARA executive director, Kirk Leech, it noted that although research on monkeys was ‘ethically troubling’ for Europe and the US it was vital for research into neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


It noted that Europe and America were in danger of falling behind in a crucial scientific field as China expanded its research efforts in this area. If cutting-edge neuroscience became concentrated in China, new companies and medical treatments would also emerge there too.


To avoid depending on China for access to such knowledge, America and Europe need to take action now,’ said the leader article.


“And were laboratories in China and Japan to come up with treatments for neurological diseases such as Alzheimerʼs as a result of their studies of monkeysʼ brains, it would be near impossible for Western countries to refuse to buy them to treat their citizens.


“Leaving others to do the dirty work of generating knowledge using means you consider to be unethical, while at the same time encouraging it by adding to demand is not taking the moral high ground. It is hypocrisy. Better for Western countries to carry out the necessary but troubling research themselves, working to the standards they deem necessary.”


In the feature article, Kirk Leech described how ‘China holding onto its primates fits into a long-term strategy it announced in 2015: the China 2025 policy’.


China is the primary source of NHPs purpose-bred for scientific use, but it has banned the export of non-human primates for use in research since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in spring 2020. While the move was prudent at first, strict health controls on monkeys used for scientific purposes means the ongoing ban now has far-reaching implications.


The article also looked at how labs in China and Japan, such as the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience, were breeding monkeys whose genomes have been modified in order to make their physiology more like humans’ and so more useful for studying human diseases.


And while many countries were hesitant to develop transgenic monkeys it was likely that they would serve as a better model for studying neurological disease than transgenic mice.


The leader article concluded that ‘Allowing China to forge ahead in brain science without mounting a comparable programme of research would be strategically foolish’.

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