Outcry over monkey experiments

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 September, 1999, 12:00am

Legislators and animal rights campaigners are urging the Government to tighten legislation covering animal experiments after some monkeys died during brain operations.

The operations, carried out by University of Hong Kong (HKU) surgeons on the mainland, were part of a $1 million project to find the cause of the spinal de formity scoliosis.

Last month, the South China Morning Post revealed that the surgeons planned to operate on 30 more six-month-old monkeys - which was branded inhumane by animal rights campaigners.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) fears it will 'open the floodgates' for local scientists to circumvent stricter animal testing regulations in the SAR.

Three of eight monkeys that underwent operations to have their pineal glands removed at Qingdao University died on the operating table.

A picture shown at the university's press conference showed the monkeys locked in small cages for observation after their operations.

Professor Leong Che-yan, research leader and head of HKU's Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, said the aim was to find the cause of scoliosis, the lateral curvature of the spine which affected many children in Hong Kong.

He said Qingdao University had a breeding centre to produce monkeys for medical experiments. Each monkey cost the team 5,000 yuan (HK$4,700).

'We have to go there because monkeys are not available in Hong Kong. We have been given approval from the mainland ethics committee,' he said. 'The monkeys are anaesthetised. They do not feel any pain.' Professor Leong said something had to be sacrificed for medical advances.

SPCA executive director Chris Hanselman said it would investigate the case and contact the university to get more information.

'We are against animal testing in any form. It is wrong to experiment in general on all animals and, more importantly, on primates,' he said.

'Clarification needs to be sought as to why they are conducting the experiments with the Qingdao University.

'In the mainland, there are no regulations or any guidelines on animal experiments. It is very much an open house and anyone can go in there and experiment without any guidelines.' Legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai said she had found a big discrepancy between the figure for the number of animals used in experiments at two local universities and the official figure reported to the Department of Health.

Figures Ms Loh obtained from sources at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and HKU showed that more than 80,000 animals were used in experiments in the 1997-98 academic year. These included rats, mice and rabbits. But Department of Health figures show that last year 583 permits were issued covering about 26,000 animals.

Ms Loh wrote to the then Secretary for Health and Welfare Katherine Fok Lo Shiu-ching to question the accuracy of the Government's figures. She said the discrepancy was large enough to raise concern.

'The current system assumes that if an experiment is not causing pain, then there is no need to monitor it. I believe this approach is outdated and unethical,' she said in the letter.

However, Professor Ricky Man Ying-keung, chairman of HKU's seven-member committee on the use of live animals in teaching and research, said they had been using international standards to consider each application.

He said the chance of local researchers getting around Hong Kong laws was slim.