Animal welfare activists have been fighting rather persistently for a long time to put a stop to nonhuman primate research, and in lieu of this, Mauritius—an island nation two-thirds as large as Rhode Island and nestled in the Indian Ocean, has now brought that fight to their own shores. Portuguese and Dutch sailors of the 18th Century introduced the country to long-tailed macaque during a time when Mauritius was definitively a place for animals to flourish. In the last half-century, in fact, the indigenous animals have come to serve as the foundation of the island nation’s export industry for other countries’ biomedical labs.
Many of the animals on whom experiments are conducted in a great deal of other countries often come from Mauritius, and the nation now wants to enter the business of experimentation for itself, chiefly on nonhuman primates despite massive cutbacks on such experimentation in Europe and North America as a result of continued efforts on the part of animal welfare activists. Mauritius’s National Assembly found itself enveloped in intense debate over the matter last month with regard to specifically whether or not the government would be able to protect the macaques subjected to research or if this burgeoning industry might impinge upon tourism.
Meredith Wadman has written for numerous publications over the course of more than two decades on biomedical research topics and the politics associated with it. With this expertise, she addresses the debate that began with Mauritius’s National Assembly before reaching the U.S. and other countries, placing all eyes on the island. She points out that “Activists, led by London-based Cruelty Free International, see the influence of Mauritius’s five monkey breeding companies behind the government’s February step allowing licenses to be issued for local research on island-bred macaques. (The new regulations also allow rabbit and rodent studies.)
“They contend that the companies are alarmed by a successful, high-pressure campaign to discourage commercial airlines from flying nonhuman primates from source countries such as Mauritius to research centers—and are trying to hedge their bets. The London group also argues that the new regulations, which amend the country’s Animal Welfare Act, are invalid because they don’t further the purpose of the original legislation.”
Many researchers disagree like Tipu Aziz, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, who argues that strict British, animal welfare regulations compelled him to abandon Parkinson’s disease research focused on long-tailed macaques, and he commends Mauritius for being a “forward-thinking” country in the way it is constructing its biotech sector. He concedes, however, “They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them” in terms of bringing basic research and drug studies to the island, and he points to China who is already establishing highly complex nonhuman primate research facilities in which Western customers are well interested.
Ever since the company, Bioculture, started shipping monkeys thirty years ago, Mauritius has done so for the sake of research. Now, they are the second-greatest exporter of long-tailed macaques behind China. Mauritian breeders exported 8,245 animals to Europe and North America in 2016, and nearly half of them went to the U.S. The value of the captive-bred Mauritian macaques is in the fact that they bear no simian viruses due to their island isolation, which the all-too-common B virus that lab workers catch in rare cases after being bitten. The virus, in those few cases, leaves them either brain-damaged or dead.
Nick Palmer, British ex-MP and manager of information technology for drug company, Novartis, says, “The breeders are having problems placing the monkeys that they breed. So they have encouraged the government to allow the setup of labs.” Palmer now serves Cruelty Free International as a policy adviser, and last month, he went to Mauritius to lobby National Assembly members to shoot down the new policies.
Nada Padayatchy, however, is Bioculture’s development and liaison manager, and she says that the government’s decision “is not based on the perceived difficulty of exporting the animals”; rather, she attributes the transition to experimentation to sheer logic on the basis that Mauritius is already a biomedical hub. A native biomedical research contractor, Centre International de Développement Pharmaceutique, was founded in 2004, and by 2011, the Mauritius was already positioning itself as a clinical trial destination for the obvious economic benefits of doing so. Since then, the Centre has brought the drug corporation, Merck, to the island to conduct such trials for diabetes drug testing on native adults as well as children.
Padayatchy says, “We see [animal experimentation] as a natural evolution and a logical follow-up” to the transition to human clinical trials. The outcome they want is for new partnerships between drug companies and research contractors to foment. Padayatchy also contends that bringing research to animals, as opposed to shipping animals to researchers, is easier on the animals and more beneficial to the research than transporting the animals all over the world long distances.