Why so secret?

Source: Flickr/ @Doug88888

Source: Flickr/ @Doug88888

Two days ago the Sydney Morning Herald published an article titled “Baboons used in ‘Frankenstein-like’ medical experiments”. Yesterday it was followed by an editorial – “Medical testing on primates: more openness and transparency needed” – and another article, also on the topic of research on non-human primates, “Thousands sign petition urging an end importing of primates for medical research”. Numerous online media have republished the “Frankenstein” article and people have taken to social media to comment.

During a six-month investigation, journalist Natalie O’Brien uncovered medical experiments on non-human primates, secretly conducted at a number of Sydney hospitals and universities, including a kidney transplant from a pig to a baboon. O’Brien writes that

Millions of dollars of research grants are being used for a variety of experiments but the hospitals involved have refused to release details about how many baboons or other primates have been experimented on, and how many have died or had to be killed.

NSW Health also denied a whole organ transplant had taken place, despite details emerging of Conan, a baboon who had to be killed because of fatal complications arising from the insertion of a pig’s kidney into his body.

In response to a Government Information Public Access (GIPA) request NSW Health had denied that diabetes research involved whole organ transplants, while the NHMRC acknowledged in writing that it has funded research for “whole organ animal to animal xenotransplantation”.

Meanwhile, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has introduced a Bill to end the import of primates for medical research. A Senate inquiry into the importation of primates into Australia for use in medical research is due to be published in March. And Humane Research Australia has handed a petition with more than 14,000 signatures calling for a ban on importing primates for medical and scientific research to the Federal Parliament.

The main issues that the articles are concerned with are the secrecy and the ethics of this research. Reliability of the animal model is another concern.

Why have these experiments been conducted secretly, as they are entirely legal? Being legal and being accepted by the public are not the same. Indeed, the law is often lagging behind views that many, if not most citizens have come to regard as acceptable and/or desirable. Examples are marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia.

The procedures performed on animals in biomedical research would anywhere other than in licensed laboratories considered to be animal cruelty, punishable by law.

The RSPCA defines animal cruelty as follows:

Animal cruelty can take many different forms. It includes overt and intentional acts of violence towards animals, but it also includes animal neglect or the failure to provide for the welfare of an animal under one’s control. In addition to this, it is important to remember animal cruelty is not restricted to cases involving physical harm. Causing animals psychological harm in the form of distress, torment or terror may also constitute animal cruelty.

Given that animals share with us the ability to suffer, it is not surprising that many people find animal experiments abhorrent. Researchers tend to keep invasive animal experiments out of public view, usually for fear of negative press or harassment. But every now and then animal advocates and journalists manage to find out about particularly gruesome instances of animal experimentation and make them public. The monkey research reported in the recent articles is such an example, and it has generated condemnation and questions about what else goes on behind closed doors.

But is the secrecy justified? Isn’t it understandable that researchers are fearful of the consequences of being open about the details of animal research? Recent experience from the UK tells us that greater transparency has NOT resulted in negative consequences for researchers and their institutions.

The Concordat on Openness on Animal Research in the UK was launched in May 2014. It is a collaboration of now 98 universities, charities, commercial companies, research councils, umbrella bodies and learned societies with a common aim:

The aim of the Concordat is culture change within the life-science sector, and a resulting shift to greater societal understanding of why and how research organisations use animals in science. The Concordat creates a shared commitment and critical mass to encourage organisations to take strategic and practical steps towards greater openness.

Following a survey of signatory institutions, the first Concordat on Openness Annual Report was published in September 2015. The survey found no reports of any adverse consequences for those organisations that provided the public with more information about their research than they had previously done.

When the Concordat was developed there was considerable concern cited about the risks of openness, and a fear that transparency would bring researchers into physical danger. The information provided by signatory institutions about their communications activities since May 2014 indicates clearly that this has not been the case. The success of many initiatives developed by signatory organisations over the first year including media interviews and documentaries, the development of websites and videos, public engagement events and mention of animals in staff recruitment processes, places this risk into context and paves the way for more activity in the future.

The types of additional information that organisations provided varied. It included, for example, numbers and species of animals used, lay summaries of research projects, images of animals, and images including animal facility staff. Funding bodies revealed the proportion of grants that are used to fund animal research, and one organisation published on their website the minutes of Animal Welfare Ethical Review Board (AWERB) meetings.

Here in Australia, we have no such initiative. While we will see how genuine the Concordat signatories are about real openness, at least it’s a good start. Here, it is extremely difficult to obtain details of animal research. Helen Marston, CEO of Humane Research Australia (HRA), describes the difficulties of obtaining any information on her blog.

A large proportion of medical research grants involve animal experimentation. We don’t know the exact extent of this proportion, but the public has a right to know how these public funds are spent. We need transparency in animal experimentation so that we as a society can have an informed dialogue about the ethics and usefulness of this research.


Further reading (and viewing)

Animal experimentation. Animals Australia.

Ban primate experiments. Humane Research Australia.

Knight, A. (2007). Systematic reviews of animal experiments demonstrate poor human clinical and toxicological utility. Alternatives To Laboratory Animals, 35, 641–659.

Knight, A. on animal experimentation. A series of video clips.

Nobis, N. (2011). The harmful, nontherapeutic use of animals in research is morally wrong. American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 342(4), 297-304.

Regan, T. (1985). The case for animal rights. In defense of animals. P. Singer. New York, Basil Blackwell: 13-26.

Tyler, A. (2015). The scientific case against the use of animals in biomedical research. UK, Animal Aid.



3 thoughts on “Why so secret?

  1. Doug

    Basing human medicine on primates and other species is not only cruel to those animals but results in ongoing illness to humans.
    “… prevention [of polio] was long delayed by the erroneous conception of the nature of the human disease based on misleading experimental models of the disease in monkeys.”
    Sabin, Albert, MD, the creator of the oral polio vaccine, statement [under oath] before the subcommittee on Hospitals and Health Care, Committee on Veterans Affairs, House of Representatives, April 26, 1984 serial no. 98-48.
    The article, “Primates confined, isolated and sometimes killed for medical research, RSPCA says” of January 24, 2016 was of superior quality to most on the subject in that it did not uncritically accept unproven claims of historical, present or future human benefit. However, in regard to the granting of permits “for scientific research that aims to benefit human health”, one must wonder where the Department derives confidence that primate ‘research’ could achieve this. Even chimpanzees, our closest living relative, are immune to the human AIDS virus, Hepatitis B and C, malaria and many other serious human pathogens. It is futile to study infections in animals that do not contract them in any similar way. In fact “…there is a great deal of often overlooked data showing NHP research to be irrelevant, unnecessary, even hazardous to human health and to have little or no predictive value or application to human medicine.” Bailey J. Non-human primates in medical research and drug development: a critical review. Biogenic Amines 2005; 19(4-6): 235–255.
    By 2005 there were over 80 AIDS vaccines which are effective in non-human primates and NONE work in humans (there are now over 100) “Indeed, since the first HIV vaccine clinical trial in humans in 1987, more than 100 clinical trials have been funded by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases through mid-2006. Yet every one of the more than 50 preventive vaccines and more than 30 therapeutic vaccines that were successful against HIV/AIDS in primate studies has failed in human clinical trials.” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Clinical Research on HIV Vaccines May 2005. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/factsheets/clinrsch.htm. If that is not bad enough, human haemophiliacs were given HIV infected blood “proven safe’ in monkeys, In the French blood scandal in the 1980s, thousands of people contracted HIV through contaminated blood – given to patients because it was safe in chimps. “Animal models are not suitable for predicting the immunogenicity of therapeutic mAbs in humans, and transposition of the immunogenic potential of therapeutic antibodies in animals to the human situation has no scientific rationale, even in primates” – Loisel, S., M. Ohresser, M. Pallardy, D. Dayde, C. Berthou, G. Cartron, and H. Watier. 2007. Relevance, advantages and limitations of animal models used in the development of monoclonal antibodies for cancer treatment. Crit Rev Oncol Hematol 62 (1):34-42
    “Drugs known to damage the human foetus are found to be safe in 70% of cases when tried on primates.” Developmental Toxicology: Mechanisms and Risk, p313, McLachlan, Pratt, and Markert (Eds). 1987
    Vioxx. Isoprenaline, hormone replacement therapy and just last week another drug disaster which passed tests in monkeys (see 1.54 to 1.58 here http://ausbb.com/showthread.php?t=30339 ) and many other failures and constant failure to cure human disease is the result of primate ‘research’…and this is the closest animal to humans, the rest are even poorer models.
    It is time our government stopped importing primates, allowing them to be bred here and in fact stopped all animal experiments as they are not predictive for humans and never will be, evolution ensures this. We need to use real species specific methods such as microdosing, computer models, micro-fluidics, personalised medicine etc or we, and animals, will continue to die needlessly. see safermedicines.org mrmcmed.org vivisectioninformation.com

  2. Pingback: Research animals are part of sustainability discussion | InBetween Media

  3. maurice dutton

    Yes I was blind to the extent of this animal cruelty and for me it is not something that should be done unless under extreme circumstances. On occasions it may be OK but I think a lot of tax payers money could go to better things.


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