The use of non-human primates in medical research polarises people. It is understandable; they are our closest genetic relatives and display many characteristics we recognise as human.
While it is a morally and ethically complex issue, for me the question is a simple one: can we justify conducting research on non-human primates to develop new treatments and cures aimed at alleviating human disease?
On March 10, the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications will decide if the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Prohibition of Live Imports of Primates for Research) Bill 2015 will go to the Senate later this year. This proposed bill would ban the Australian research community from importing primates from other breeding colonies elsewhere in the world for use in biomedical research here.
This bill may seem innocuous enough but if passed it ultimately will lead to the cessation of all non-human primate research.
Most medical research on animals is performed using rodents (rats and mice), but for some research real progress can be made using only non-human primates. In Australia, non-human primates represent a tiny proportion of animals used in medical research. For some this will be too many and, indeed, some will hold the position that any animal used in medical research is one too many.
But for me, and I expect most Australians who have lived through seeing partners, family, friends, colleagues suffer through the worst nature can throw at us, the moral imperative remains to alleviate human disease.
For too long, scientists have decided not to communicate as clearly or as often as we should have when the debate over animal experimentation has arisen. What we inadvertently have allowed to happen, instead, is for a minority of people to sway the debate that portrays scientists as evil. They are not. No scientist in Australia performs research with non-human primates without significant deliberation, planning and thought.
For a start, the way we conduct experiments on non-human primates, and the way they are housed and looked after, is regulated by the National Health and Medical Research Council as well as ethics committees, which must approve every step of every experiment and agree only when there is no other animal alternative.
The bill being considered, if passed, will ban the import of non-human primates into Australia for research.
At the moment, non-human primates are brought into a small number of breeding colonies in Australia. They are, of course, carefully monitored en route by veterinary surgeons. They come only from licensed breeding facilities in Europe or the US and they are most definitely not caught in the wild, despite some of the less responsible rhetoric in circulation.
Without new animals coming into the breeding colonies, the animals will become increasingly inbred and suffer the health and medical consequences. It will mean the colonies will not be viable and non-human primate research in Australia will stop.
Medical research using non-human primates has saved countless lives.
At the moment, non-human primates will be critical to developing vaccines against the Zika virus, which is running through South America and is linked to babies being born with very small brains.
In the past couple of years, non-human primates were important in developing vaccines against Ebola.
Without primate research, we would not have developed the polio vaccine; refined antiretrovirals that means people with AIDS and HIV can live for decades, when previously they faced a death sentence; and provided thousands of Australians with deep brain stimulation to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Australian children have been vaccinated against hepatitis B, diphtheria, measles, mumps and rubella.
In Australia, non-human primates are used in experiments associated with vaccine development, diabetes and metabolic disease, understanding perceptual and cognitive processing, and the development of prostheses to return sight to people who are blind. This promising research would be forced to stop or move overseas if the proposed bill were passed.
Australia has a long and proud history of medical research. We also have a long and proud history of conducting animal research in a responsible and measured way. Non-human primate research is not something researchers take lightly and neither should those considering the move to ban the importation of primates because it will be Australian children and their parents and grandparents who will end up suffering.
John Carroll is director of the Monash University Biomedicine Discovery Institute.