The Chinese government does not like or accept the orthodox view that the Covid-19 virus first infected humans at an animal market in Wuhan. Even a much vaguer formulation, referring to “the outbreak of the coronavirus in China”, was notoriously excised by the China Daily newspaper from an otherwise cordial article signed by the European ambassadors in Beijing. Still less does China officially countenance the suggestion that the virus was an escapee from Wuhan’s Institute of Virology.
This last is not an explanation that convinces many scientists outside that country either, but for China it’s especially objectionable. A recent announcement by Beijing’s Science and Technology Commission, taking a quick survey of modern history, noted that “Nations that led the most revolutionary scientific advancements . . . became global leaders in industry, commerce, and culture.” Global leadership in these and other areas of international life is patently China’s aim, so naturally the country “strives to be a superpower in innovation.” Biomedical research is an important part of this project,
and the laboratory at Wuhan has been one of its early manifestations. The National Bio-Safety Laboratory there is the first of an intended series of institutions working at the highest internationally agreed level of bio-safety, BSL-4. When the lab was completed, in 2017, a report in the journal Nature reflected in its style something of the heroic swagger of the project: “Chinese microbiologists are celebrating their entrance to the elite cadre empowered to wrestle with the world’s greatest biological threats.” A leading Chinese microbiologist was quoted: “The world is facing more new emerging viruses, and we need more contribution from China.” Irony and coincidence: we shouldn’t be surprised that China is doing what it can to keep them from spoiling the shine on its research facility at Wuhan, and on the larger science project which it represents.
It’s not simply a matter of national pride. That announcement quoted above was part of a closely-printed 4-page ‘advertorial’ in the American journal Science on 1 May; another one, with a different text, appeared in the next issue. Both were positioned immediately after the journal’s own editorial: that is, not among the adverts at beginning and end, but as part of the reading matter. Their express purpose, thus lavishly funded, is to attract “foreign experts” either to collaborate in the research or to set up their own research establishments – in this case in the Beijing area, but other cities and provinces are equally eager. It’s being made as easy and attractive as possible for the experts to do so, with special visas, plentiful research grants, even suitable schools “public or private”. And the high-powered welcome is very acceptable to Western scientists. “This place just makes things happen quickly”, says an MIT neuroscientist whose work is becoming trans-Pacific accordingly. A fellow-professional in that discipline is making a complete re-location to the city of Hangzhou in order direct a laboratory built to her specifications, and feels likewise liberated from impediments: “Once the decision is made, you can start writing cheques.” Cheques, that is, for staff, for equipment, and, of course, because it’s neuroscience, for animals.
So it’s not just the grants which come easily; it’s the animals, and particularly the large animals. One of the planned BSL-4 laboratories, to be built near Kunming in Yunnan province, south-western China, will be specifically for primate research, but already that province is a noted centre for such work. The Yunnan Key Laboratory, which the journal Nature calls “a Mecca for cutting-edge primate research”, specializes in editing the genes of monkeys (of which it has a colony of something over 4000) to produce models of human neural diseases. The “dream” of its director, apparently, is “to have an animal like a tool” for making biomedical discoveries with. Then there’s the Kunming Institute of Zoology, whose director of primate research hopes to develop a colony of 5000 monkeys; his dream is to run the place “like a hospital, with separate departments for surgery, genetics and imaging.”
These are dreams that many researchers in Europe and the USA evidently share, but difficulties with funds and ethics tend to prevent them from realizing the dreams in their own countries. One such, Professor Nikos Logothetis of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, was recently in the news announcing his intention to move to a centre for primate brain research in Shanghai. (The centre is part of a biomedical research complex which has recently produced the five monkeys pictured here on the right, gene-edited and cloned to suffer sleep-disorders. To produce these five survivors, 325 embryos were planted into 65 surrogate mothers.) Characteristically, the Shanghai centre is in process of being built; China’s science, vast as it may already be, is dwarfed by its own future. There will be 6000 or so non-human primates available there. “Scientifically it’s incredible”, Logothetis told a journalist (with that imprecise fulsomeness that scientists use for journalists, or perhaps it’s just that journalists impute it to them), but he means ethically “incredible” as well. Having had trouble with animal activists and with animal-protection law in Germany, he looks forward to a more liberal regime in Shanghai. So, presumably, do the other members of his department, about half of the total, who mean to move with him.
That’s just one well-reported example. Some Western scientists seem to run a sort of second home in China. One specialist in spinal-cord injury based in Lausanne, we’re told, “travels almost monthly to China to pursue his monkey research . . . He has even flown to Beijing, done a couple of operations on his experimental monkeys, then returned that night.” Incidentally, it costs less than half as much to buy and keep a monkey in a laboratory in China as it does in Europe or the USA, although the chances are that the monkey will have come from a breeder in China in all three cases (China provides about 70% of the primates used in the USA). That should help pay for the flights, then.
In short, primate research is one of those things in which China has the firm intention, and every likelihood, of becoming a “global leader”. There are no general animal-cruelty laws in that country, and it’s reasonable to ask whether the animals which Westerners think it worth hurrying across the globe to experiment on have any ethical protection at all. And not just primates, of course, for these are part of a huge annual cohort of lab animals. It numbers about 20 million at present, but seems likely to grow rapidly, for the present moves past at speed in China: this whole hyper-active animal-research scene in China is hardly more than fifty years old.
In fact hustle has marked the modern history of China. The people have often enough suffered as dreadfully as the animals, although they have at least been the notional beneficiaries. Mao Zedong’s great ‘Eliminate the Sparrows’ campaign of 1958 was one typical illustration of the place of non-human animals in communist China. In its unthought-out assault upon these birds as crop-predators, the campaign boosted the populations of the insects which the sparrows also used to eat, and helped cause the ‘Great Famine’. It did also wipe out the sparrows, apparently with the keen support of the Chinese people. Later, a sparrow population had to be imported. Something of this same hubris and hurry is evident in what has been called China’s “animal-editing binge”.
However, the hustle today has Western interests in mind, as we’ve seen. In the case of laboratory animal welfare, policy therefore pulls in opposite directions. Whilst moral permissiveness in the laboratory will appeal to many individual researchers like Logothetis, it makes collaboration with Western institutions awkward or even impractical, and as publicity it would compromise the international standing of Chinese biomedical science. It’s certainly not one of the inducements offered in that Beijing ‘advertorial’ or in any other publicity that I’ve seen. And happily there is indeed a system of ethical regulation in China’s animal research laboratories, or at least the paperwork for it.
Some reference to animal welfare even appeared in the very first Ministry of Science and Technology rules of 1988, the publication of which really marked the institutionalizing of animal research in the country. Those rules mainly concerned hygiene, record-keeping, and other aspects of lab management, but animal welfare was more expressly the subject of the Ministry’s Guidelines for the Humane Treatment of Laboratory Animals, issued in 2006. Here, something approximating to the EU’s system – with licensing, training, ethical review committees, ‘humane end-points’, and application of the 3R principles – was introduced. The stated purpose was to ensure that “animals will not suffer from unnecessary harm, hunger, thirst, discomfort, fear, torture, disease and pain”, and that “animals can achieve their natural behaviour.”
No doubt every country has its own history of malpractice in laboratories, mostly unrevealed, occasionally illuminated in scandals: helplessness of the sort imposed on the animals by these alien circumstances will always bring out the sadist or bully in some humans, whatever their nationality. Therefore there need be nothing xenophobic in deducing from the Guidelines something very unpleasant in the situation which they proposed to correct. For instance, these are some of the actions which, except when done “for the need of testing”, are specified as violations: “teasing, irritating, beating, using electric shock or hurting laboratory animals by using food with offending taste, chemical drugs and poisonous materials . . . intentionally harming the organs of laboratory animals.”
Whether the Guidelines have been able to correct such things is another matter. They do not have the status of law, and there is little evidence that the sanctions which they do make available (warnings, suspension of license, ‘re-assignment’) have been enforced. The official policy, and habit, of secrecy would tend to hide any such evidence, of course, but also to hide the violations in the first place, and to discourage their reporting. Occasionally, papers by Chinese researchers have appeared in science journals discussing the subject in general terms, and they aren’t reassuring. Mention is made of ignorance, negligence, blunders, and deliberate abuse. One account in 2008 found that little or no provision for the welfare of animals in laboratories, beyond their basic survival needs, was then being made: “As a result, many such animals have a very high incidence of abnormal behaviour.” A survey of Chinese medical students, published in 2015, found that only 25% of them recognised animal welfare as a concept, the others not having encountered or at any rate noticed it at all.
In 2016 a new set of proposed national standards for the treatment of laboratory animals was published. These were described in China Daily as “tougher regulations . . . to bring the nation into line with developed countries”. That this was indeed at least part of the purpose, or of the purposed impression, was indicated by the choice of time and place for the announcement: a conference involving Chinese research groups and the British NC3Rs (National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research). I can’t find any reports since then of the introduction or effect of these new standards. However, we know that more and more Chinese laboratories and training programmes are applying for endorsement from the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, suggesting that they believe themselves to be indeed getting “into line with developed countries”.
It may be more significant in the long run that China has an animal rights movement of its own, or at least a growing debate on the subject. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was translated into Mandarin Chinese in the mid-1990s, and Chinese writers and campaign groups have taken up the ideology and developed it in their own setting (against greater odds, no doubt, than we have known in the West). The Chinese Animal Protection Network is an especially enterprising group, which stresses the scientific reasoning for animal rights – in evolution and in our growing awareness of the sentient capacities of non-human animals. In 2008, CAPN organised the first World Day for Animals in Laboratories in that country. And it wisely reminds its constituency of a national tradition older than communism in this matter. The last of the “six keys of our philosophy” is this: “The term animal rights may be quoted from the West, but the essence of the idea is not imported. The essence of its ideas has been widely and profoundly expressed in Chinese traditional ideas: Buddha, Taoism, and Confucianism.”
Western scientists sometimes say that tightening the rules which govern their animal research, or even maintaining them as they are, will simply drive the work away to more permissive regimes. We see that happen, but it’s not a good reason to make things more permissive here. For all its proud nationalism, China needs Western collaboration in biomedical science. Many of its own leading scientists have trained in the USA, and many of their successors will still wish to study and work in Western laboratories. They like to publish in English-language journals, as do the Western scientists who re-locate there. These journals, the better ones at any rate, demand that the welfare implications of the research they publish should be part of what’s reported (as specified in the international ARRIVE guidelines noted below). The ethical standards of the West, such as they are (and they certainly fall pitifully short of those prescriptions in Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism), will continue to be the international model, however crude or insincere the approximations to it may be. The stricter Westerns standards are, the better the prospects for those millions of primates, dogs, pigs, and other species doomed to live and die in Chinese laboratories.
Even so, as the foregoing sketch may have shown, their prospects are pretty frightening.
Notes and references:
The quotations from Chinese and Western scientists are mainly from two articles by David Cyranoski published in Nature:
A report on the Logothetis affair can be found in the journal Science here: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/animal-rights-conflict-prompts-leading-researcher-leave-germany-china
The five cloned monkeys, with an extended account of gene-editing in Chinese laboratories which includes the “binge” quotation, can be found in Science, 2 August 2019, pp.426-9. The article is ominously titled ‘The CRISPR Animal Kingdom’, CRISPR being the gene-editing technology which has now made possible rapid and accurate work of the sort described.
Much of the information about animal-research regulation and ethics as practised in laboratories, including quotations from the official texts, is taken from Deborah Cao, ‘Ethical Questions for Research Ethics: Animal Research in China’, Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol.8, no.2, 2018, pp.138-49. Also, Bryan Ogden et al, ‘Laboratory Animals Laws, Regulations, Guidelines and Standards in China Mainland, Japan, and Korea’, ILAR Journal, published online on 4 May 2017 here: https://academic.oup.com/ilarjournal/article/57/3/301/3796588
China Daily reported on the 2016 proposals on 18 January 2016 here: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-01/18/content_23124464.htm
CAPN is quoted from its web-site, which is well worth viewing: https://capn-online.info/en.php
The ARRIVE guidelines (Animal Research: Reporting In Vivo Experiments) were devised by NC3Rs in 2010 and revised in 2019 as a means “to improve the reporting of research using animals”: see https://www.nc3rs.org.uk/arrive-guidelines
Illustrations show the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the five cloned monkeys in a publicity shot (note the ‘enrichments’), and a 1959 poster titled ‘Eliminating the Last Sparrow’.