Animal Research in China

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 cloned monkeysBiological 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 the first place (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 last sparrowbeneficiaries. 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:

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:

China Daily reported on the 2016 proposals on 18 January 2016 here:

CAPN is quoted from its web-site, which is well worth viewing:

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

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’.


Which Crisis?

The health crisis caused by Covid-19 is unusual in its suddenness and universality, but there is nothing to learn from it about human health. We already knew that humans were liable to such infectious diseases; much of our medical research and development over the last two centuries has been devoted to identifying and disabling the bacteria and viruses that cause them. Research into Covid-19 will differ only in the haste and internationalism which correspond with the irruption of the disease. More important then, because this is something that we haven’t even started to put right, is that Covid-19 is also a crisis in our relations with other animals or, rather, a flagrant symptom of it.

The pathway taken by the virus, from bats to pangolins to humans, has now been more or less confidently identified, and the particular setting for it, the notorious wet markets of Wuhan, have been prohibited together with other such markets in China (see this blog on 28 February). But as the Mirror newspaper reports, “multiple species are still being crammed together, slaughtered and sold, in filthy conditions, contaminated with blood and faeces, at countless markets in other Asian countries.” Live-animals markets even exist in New York, selling less exotic animals perhaps, but with the same crowding, on-site slaughtering, and consequently morally and physically squalid conditions. (Two petitions which you may like to sign on this subject are linked in the notes below.)

But aren’t even conventional slaughterhouses “contaminated with blood and faeces”? At any rate, the more mainstream forms of agriculture are not innocent by-standers in the Covid-19 story. An excellent piece by Laura Spinney in the Guardian (‘Is Factory Farming to Blame for the Coronavirus?’) uncovers their part in creating the conditions for that and other such animal-derived infections. Not just have the huge factory farms pushed the small farmers of Asia out of their traditional lands and into ‘specialist’ wild animal trading, working in the forest and other uncultivated lands where the animals have hitherto been relatively undisturbed. Such farms also create, on their own account, ideal virus-incubating conditions: that is, a target host of unnaturally crowded and unhealthy animals, with none of the genetic variety that can inhibit transmission. These conditions, says Spinney, “can result in the ratcheting up of the virus’s virulence. If it then spills over into humans, we are potentially in trouble.”

Among the products of such agriculture have been campylobacter, Q fever, hepatitis E, and various mutations of the influenza virus. As to this last case, industrial agriculture’s “strategic alliance with influenza” has been fully documented in a recent book by the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace, whose title bluntly states the case: Big Farms Make Big Flu (Monthly Review Press, 2016).

The more general truth is that farms make diseases. Humans have been fashioning their illnesses out of animals, along with their food, clothes, motive power, amusement, and latterly lab equipment, for millennia. In his comprehensive history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, Roy Porter has to begin (on page 18 of 700) with the agricultural revolution of the neolithic period, because this was where the trouble began. Newly crowded human populations (more humans could now be fed from a given area CoeDeadlyVirusof land) were living off force-crowded animals, and so creating the right conditions for “pathogens once exclusive to animals” to jump across to humans:

Many of the worst human diseases were created by proximity to animals. Cattle provided the pathogen pool with tuberculosis and viral poxes like smallpox. Pigs and ducks gave humans their influenzas, while horses brought rhinoviruses and hence the common cold . . . water polluted with animal faeces also spreads polio, cholera, typhoid, viral hepatitis, whooping cough and diphtheria.  

Smallpox, to take one especially baneful example, was a “ratcheting up” in human hosts of the cowpox virus. Edward Jenner, the man who pioneered the use of cowpox as a prophylactic against it, understood well in the 18th century the context which Porter describes. He stated it thus in his Enquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Cow Pox (1798):

The deviation of man from the state in which he was originally placed by nature seems to have proved to him a prolific source of diseases. From the love of splendour, from the indulgence of luxury, and from his fondness for amusement he has familiarized himself with a great number of animals, which may not originally have been intended for his associates.

As I said, we haven’t started to put this problem right, but of course there’s been plenty of remedial action. Laura Spinney mentions avian flu virus H7N9, first found in humans in 2013; a vaccine was developed against this virus in poultry once it became a serious threat to the economics of chicken farming. Now a similar approach – that is, curing the result and not the cause – is being used against African swine fever, a disease which is not yet known to affect humans but has been killing millions of pigs in China before their profitable time (though it appears to be relatively harmless in the wild animals from which it came). A vaccine against it has been devised which, we’re encouraged to believe by a veterinary epidemiologist (that title itself tells a wretched story), justifies “guarded optimism”, although “more testing of safety and efficacy is needed.” [Science, 20 March]

Yes of course, it always is, and here more than ever, when we see research patching up the pathologies which research largely made possible in the first place, one is reminded of that scientist for all seasons, Dr Grant Swinger, alert to every new fashion and opportunity in big science and to the funds which lubricate it (he was the brilliant invention of the late Daniel Greenberg). Still, we certainly find ourselves in urgent need of Dr Swinger and his fellow-professionals at present, so let’s see how they’re getting on with the scourge of Covid-19.

Animal-research laboratories are of course being affected by the pandemic like any other work-place, except that they can’t simply be closed or even put on reduced hours, because there’s a population of animals to keep alive or not. We’re told that labs in the USA are “currently grappling with the best way to care for the millions of mice, monkeys, and other research animals they care for across the country”. One way to do this, of course, is to put them down – ‘take care of them’ in that sense – and a report in Science’s online news for 23 March does indeed announce that “Labs are euthanizing thousands of mice in response to coronavirus pandemic.”

There is no doubt great reluctance to resort to such measures, and one researcher calls the loss “heartbreaking, scientifically and emotionally”. The distress is surely sincere, but it illustrates the ethical non-sense inherent in animal research. (You may recall a similar cry of distress from farmers who lost cattle in the UK’s foot and mouth outbreak earlier this century.) For by way of mitigating the offence, the director of animal resources at Johns Hopkins University explains that many of these mice “would have been euthanized anyway, because, for example, they weren’t born with the genetic profile the lab needed for particular experiments.” It’s just a case of hurrying things up, of doing “two to three weeks’ worth of culling in the course of a single week”. The director himself is “assisting with much of the culling”. This is a reminder of animals bin 3something which the word “heartbreaking” tends to obscure, that killing animals, whether un-needed or at the end of their living usefulness, is a daily routine in laboratories. “Our top priority is animal welfare”, says another lab director, reporting on this crisis. It’s a very familiar claim, but it’s a pious untruth. A laboratory in which it was true would have to find homes for its animals and then close down.

Fortunately the great supplier to the world of GM mice, the Jackson Laboratory – familiarly ‘Jax’ – at Maine and elsewhere (see this blog on 3 July 2017) is not suffering similar heartbreak. Not only has it “not increased its culling” (the routine toll in the Jax labs must constitute a daily massacre), but the demand for ‘mouse models’ susceptible to Covid-19 has prompted “the Jax team” to undertake “a large-scale in vitro fertilization (IVF) program”, so that “very shortly, there’ll be thousands of these mice available to the scientific community.” Meanwhile, all other specialized mice are fully available. Incidentally, for anxious researchers who may be asking themselves “Can humanized mice (immunodeficient mice engrafted with human CD34+ hematopoietic stem cells) be infected with Coronavirus?”, the Jax FAQs section has a reassuring answer: “the chances . . . is [sic] extremely remote.” Well, that’s always been regarded as safe enough odds in the past.

There has been some suggestion that the present urgency may actually have benefited animals, by allowing researchers to conduct clinical trials of possible vaccines straight after in vitro studies, without the usual animal testing. The safety and effectiveness of this way of doing things will thereby have been clearly established. But is this really happening? As far as I can tell, it has applied only to the ‘repurposing’ of therapies already tested and approved in the conventional way for other conditions: for instance, as the journal Science reports, “drugs that have performed well in animal studies against the other two deadly coronaviruses, which cause SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)”. But in whatever way it’s being managed (and the Jax announcement shows that animals are certainly implicated in large numbers), a lot of hard and hurried work is being done to find a vaccine for Covid-19.

To find a vaccine, but to leave the root cause untouched. And this short-termism is reflected in the imagery which is commonly being used to describe our present plight. “Nous sommes en guerre” said President Macron several times in his eloquent and moving address to the French nation on 16 March. Other politicians have used the same imagery in sundry variations. Scientists too. The editor of Science calls for a grand collective effort on the pattern of the Manhattan Project (which produced the first atom bomb). Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, recently likened the co-operative endeavour for the nation’s health to the miscellany of ships which rescued the British army from Dunkirk.

All this is understandable, affecting, apt in its way. But it’s the wrong way, not so much because, as was recently argued in the Atlantic, you don’t win wars by skulking at home as we’re required to do at present, but because the attitude itself is mistaken. If there is an enemy in this case, it is we ourselves in our character as compulsive predators. A virus is no more an enemy than a tiger or a bear is an enemy, though all three can seriously harm us in some circumstances. Certain varieties of virus serve us well, for instance the ‘phages’ which can be used to disable some bacteria; others pursue their life-course (or life-like course, since viruses aren’t a self-sufficient life-form) in ways that are indeed capable, by chance, of killing us. The trick is to keep those, and their natural hosts, at a proper distance.

The situation is well understood in one of the earliest of all myths, the quest of the Babylonian King Gilgamesh to destroy the monster Humbaba in the far-distant Cedar Forest. Humbaba, with his “terrifying roar”, is spoken of and feared by the people as a monster, but he seems to do no pro-active harm at all. Simply being feared from a distance is his job. One translator of the epic, Stephen Mitchell, says “Humbaba has his appointed place in the divine order of things. He has specifically been commissioned to be monstrous by one of the great gods, because humans are not supposed to penetrate into the Cedar Forest and chop down its trees.” Or as Mitchell has Humbaba himself say, “I am the forest’s guardian. Enlil / Put me here to terrify men.” [pp.125, 31] It might be Covid-19 talking.

In so far as Gilgamesh gets wisdom from the disaster which his killing of Humbaba turns out to entail, it consists in returning to his own city, to his own proper sphere of life, and staying there. Something of this ancient lesson we may be able to learn from the present crisis, provided we see what sort of crisis it is: a health crisis just for the moment, but more importantly a long-term moral crisis habitually injuring us in ways like this until we at last put it (that is, put ourselves) right.


Notes and references:

Petitions against the live-animal markets of New York and elsewhere can be signed here:  and

The Mirror article, published on 26 March, can be read here:

The Guardian article, published on 28 March) is here: c

Quotation on the agricultural revolution is from p.18 of Roy Porter’s The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: a Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, HarperCollins, 1997. Porter’s quotation from Jenner’s book is on p.19.

The Science news story about African swine fever is on p.1285, 20 March (vol.367). The online news about culling populations of lab mice can be read here: The quotation about re-purposing drugs is from an article about Covid-19 research in the issue for 27 March, ‘Race to find Covid-19 treatments accelerates’, at p.1412. This also is the issue in which the editor makes the comparison with the Manhattan Project.

Announcements about Covid-19 by the Jackson Laboratory are on their web-site at You will notice there Jax’s own plentiful use of the ‘top priority’ trope, an interesting study in itself.

The translation of Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell is published by Profile Books, 2004. Quotations are from pp.31 and 125.

The print by Sue Coe was issued in 2007, so that in addition to its strength as activist art it illustrates the perennial nature of the harms we inherit by intruding improperly into the lives of other species. The dead animals notice is from a photograph taken by Brian Gunn of the International Association Against Painful Experiments on Animals.