Since the 9/11 attacks, researchers in the United States have conducted exceptionally cruel, even superfluous, experiments on animals to develop countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction. But as BuzzFeed reporter Peter Aldhous asks: Is all this suffering really necessary?

Monkeys, says Aldhous, “are the unsung heroes of the war on terror — or its hidden innocent victims, depending on your point of view.” He points to experiments in which monkeys, mostly rhesus macaques, long-tailed macaques, and African green monkeys, have been deliberately infected with deadly bacteria and viruses. In many cases, these experiments result in excessive cruelty and often death.

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For his investigation, Aldhous focused on what the USDA calls “Column E” experiments in which pain isn’t alleviated with painkillers, tranquilizers, or other drugs. His research shows that the increase “in monkey experiments involving pain or distress has been driven by the effort to develop countermeasures against biological, chemical, and radiological weapons.”

If it weren’t for biodefense, says Aldhous, these sorts of experiments would be on the decline.

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This analysis even surprised some experts:

“Wow, that’s a lot of monkeys,” said Joanne Zurlo of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies alternatives to animal experimentation. “It’s quite disturbing.”

According to the FDA’s “Animal Rule,” medical experiments on animals are justified if the results are “clearly related to the desired benefit in humans, generally the enhancement of survival or prevention of major morbidity.” But as Aldhous points out, “some experts question whether such experiments are giving the best results.” As Thomas Hartung of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University told BuzzFeed News, some 95% of promising drugs actually fail at human clinical trials. Aldhous writes:

Is the suffering of all these monkeys justified? Some experts consulted by BuzzFeed News argued that the research is necessary if we want to have drugs and vaccines to protect against a devastating terrorist attack. But monkeys are not always the best model for whether a drug or vaccine will work in people. Even when they are, some researchers have deep misgivings about the large numbers of monkeys that have been used in studies that condemn many to severe illness and death.

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Regrettably, there’s no viable alternative to animal experimentation; but as we’ve pointed out here at io9 before, that’s set to change.

But for the time being, “monkeys will remain on the front lines of the war on terror,” as Aldhous puts it. “But do so many have to be sacrificed, and does their suffering need to be so intense?”

Be sure to read the entire article at BuzzFeed.


Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by J. M. Garg/CC GFDL

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