Mauritius's breeders established colonies from wild-caught macaques.

OLGA KHOROSHUNOVA/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Angering animal welfare activists, Mauritius invites primate research labs to set up shop

The persistent fight by animal welfare activists to end nonhuman primate research has found its way to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. In the 1700s, Dutch and Portuguese seafarers introduced the long-tailed macaque to the island, where the animals thrived and, in recent decades, formed the basis of an export industry supplying biomedical labs in the developed world. Now, Mauritius has decided to get into the business of nonhuman primate experimentation itself even as such work is becoming increasingly constrained in North America and Europe. Last month the move touched off a heated debate in Mauritius's National Assembly about whether the government could adequately protect the macaques used in research and whether the new industry might endanger a far bigger lifeline for the island—tourism.

The debate is reverberating overseas. 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.

Some scientists see it differently. Tipu Aziz, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who says he was obliged by stringent U.K. animal welfare regulations to abandon studies of Parkinson's disease in long-tailed macaques, commends Mauritius's effort as a "forward-thinking" attempt to build up its biotech sector. But, he says, "They've got a lot of work ahead of them" to attract drug studies and basic research, noting that China has already established sophisticated nonhuman primate research centers that are attractive to Western customers.

Mauritius has exported monkeys for research since the company Bioculture began shipping the animals three decades ago. Today, the country is the second-largest source, after China, of long-tailed macaques, familiar to scientists as cynomolgus monkeys. In 2016, its breeders exported 8245 animals to North America and Europe—nearly half of them to the United States (see chart, below). The captive-bred Mauritian macaques are valued because, as a result of their island isolation, they are free of simian viruses including B virus, which in rare cases has infected lab workers after bites, leaving them brain-damaged or dead. The animals' genetic makeup—in particular their patterns of expression of certain cell-surface proteins—also makes them useful models for studies of HIV.

By now, however, Air France is the only commercial carrier still willing to fly nonhuman primates bound for research labs. And the pressure continues: In January, the former model, singer, and actress Brigitte Bardot wrote to Air France asking that it stop flying research-bound macaques from Mauritius to Paris and beyond, calling it a "shameful business."

"The breeders are having problems placing the monkeys that they breed. So they have encouraged the government to allow the setup of labs," says Nick Palmer, a former member of U.K. parliament and information technology manager at the drug company Novartis. Now a policy adviser for Cruelty Free International, Palmer flew to the island last month to lobby National Assembly members to oppose the new regulations.

Monkey business

Mauritius is the world's second-largest exporter of long-tailed macaques, a laboratory favorite.

DATA: CITES TRADE DATABASE

But Nada Padayatchy, development and liaison manager at Bioculture, says the government's decision "is not based on the perceived difficulty of exporting the animals." She says the move into experimentation is a logical step for a country that already aspires to be a biomedical hub. A biomedical contract research organization, Centre International de Développement Pharmaceutique, was established in Mauritius in 2004, and in 2011, the country began promoting itself as a clinical trial destination. It has since lured the drug company Merck to conduct diabetes drug studies in local children and adults.

"We see [animal experimentation] as a natural evolution and a logical follow-up" to the move into human clinical trials, Padayatchy says. The hoped-for outcome: new collaborations and partnerships with drug companies and contract research organizations. She also argues that bringing the research to the animals rather than vice versa is far easier on them, and better, too, for the research, than transporting them to destinations half a world away.

Although no customers have materialized yet for the country's foray into animal research, Mauritius does have the blessing of the large auditing firm KPMG, which last year declared the country "the most accommodative business environment in Africa, with high levels of economic freedom and low tax rates."

But both academic and industry scientists say that luring offshore researchers will be a challenge for Mauritius. One senior U.S. pharmaceutical executive, who would speak only if kept anonymous, wondered whether the tiny nation will be able to meet the good laboratory practices (GLPs) required of facilities that test drugs intended for humans in macaques: "GLP is a really big deal. A lot of things have to be highly controlled and monitored," the unnamed executive says. "Results can't be influenced by ‘The power went out for 6 hours,’ or ‘There's a typhoon coming and we're going to have to lock down the facility.’"

Some members of Mauritius's National Assembly worry about safeguards for the animals. During floor debate last month, one member, Paul Bérenger, asked who would ensure that the animals would be protected at European Union standards. Another, Rajesh Bhagwan, asked whether public transparency about the nature and conduct of the experiments would be guaranteed—and what the impact would be on the islands' all-important tourism industry, which grew by 11% in 2015 and 2016.

The government is undeterred. "We are supporting this [experimentation] industry," Minister of Agro-Industry and Food Security Mahen Kumar Seeruttun told the National Assembly. The government, he added, thinks it "wise."