Sydney's online community went into meltdown after reports circulated of three baboons on the run from a hospital in the city's inner west suburbs. While the initial reaction was filled with memes and funny takes, others began to catch on that there was a much darker element to the news.
Three baboons were reported to have escaped from Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) hospital late afternoon on Tuesday 25, February. NSW Health confirmed to Gizmodo Australia the trio, one male and two females, made the trip to the facility so the male could have a vasectomy with the two females keeping him company. The Guardian confirmed the Old World monkeys made their escape via a faulty lock on the transport vehicle but have since been recaptured.
???? - Michael Tran pic.twitter.com/Ww7uqc6n2R
— Nine News Sydney (@9NewsSyd) February 25, 2020
"He was having a vasectomy because there’s no desire for him to continue to breed for the troop, and the other option was to move him from the troop," NSW health minister Brad Hazzard told The Guardian.
"This way, he can stay with his family through until old age."
As the news broke, the story took on a life of its own on Twitter. Following the chaos, a four-year-old report from Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) began to re-circulate. It didn't take long to realise there was a sinister undercurrent brewing beneath the light-hearted story.
Australia's history of using primates for scientific testing
In 2016, SMH reporter Natalie O'Brien released an explosive six-month investigation detailing how secret experiments had been conducted on a colony of baboons in Sydney's fringes – and at multiple locations.
The report alleges that hundreds of baboons have been imported to Australia and bred for science experiments.
One of the facilities housing the baboons is located in Sydney's Wallacia and is operated by Sydney Local Health District, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) confirmed to Gizmodo Australia. It's there, the report alleges, that a number of experiments have been conducted and some experiments have resulted in the deaths of a number of baboons.
One reported incident, which NSW Health denied to SMH, included a baboon being put down after complications arose when a pig's kidney was inserted into it.
Gizmodo Australia has contacted the Sydney Local Health District to understand what sorts of experiments are being conducted on the primates.
NSW Health confirms baboon research is happening in Australia
A spokesperson for NSW Health confirmed to Gizmodo Australia there is indeed a colony of primates bred in Australia, that are being used for biomedical research in Australia.
"The Australian National Baboon Colony is a purpose bred colony of primates which was established to enable important biomedical research to be undertaken in Australia by leading researchers committed to advancing health through research," the spokesperson said in a statement.
"There is a rigorous ethics process required for animal research. Animals are only used in medical research when it is scientifically warranted and there are no appropriate alternatives. Research using non-animal systems, such as computer or cell-based systems, are used as a replacement for animal research where possible."
The Sydney Local Health District told SMH back in 2016, the primates are used to help researchers understand and treat medical conditions.
"The colony has helped medical researchers conduct important research which has contributed significantly to paving the way for new treatments of disorders such as pre-eclampsia, complicated diabetes, kidney disorders and vascular diseases," the Sydney Local Health District said to SMH.
It's understood a separate facility housing a colony of primates — marmosets and macaques — is located in Victoria's Churchill.
The advocacy group Humane Research Australia says there were 272 primates in medical research facilities around Australia in 2017 — according to the latest available figures. It outlines examples of alleged animal cruelty in these facilities dating back to at least 2013, when it reported eight healthy baboons had their tendons and rotator cuffs damaged in order to replicate the human healing process.
There are even earlier examples than this. In 2007, 12 macaques from the Churchill facility were subject to a study where they were given ketamine and infected with auto-immune diseases, such as SIV and SHIV. An earlier 2004 study saw eight baby marmoset monkeys have some of their brain tissue removed while under an opiate dosage.
A 2016 study in PLOS One found baboons were ideal for medical research experiments as they shared "similarities in genetic, anatomical, physiological and biochemical characteristics with humans." It concluded, despite differences in length of life, cardiovascular parameters between the two species were very similar.
The criteria and funding for testing on baboons in Australia
According to the NHMRC, in order for a research trial to go ahead using non-human primates, it must satisfy a number of criteria.
"Those involved with the use of non-human primates must first ensure that there is no other way of obtaining the necessary information," the NHMRC's site reads. "If it is absolutely necessary to use non-human primates, their use must be ethical and humane, comply with all relevant legislation and meet the highest possible standards."
An animal ethics committee will then evaluate the trial taking into account the trial's justification, methods and adverse affects on the animals, in accordance with the code.
The NHMRC says it does not fund the research unless the work is of "high quality and significance", in which case it then goes through a peer review process.
The Wallacia and Churchill facilities were one of those previously funded by NHMRC but Gizmodo Australia has confirmed with the agency the funding stopped in 2018.
"We can confirm that NHMRC does not fund any non-human primate facilities. NHMRC funding for two non-human primate facilities — a national non-human primate breeding and research facility in Victoria and the baboon colony in Sydney (Wallacia) — ceased in 2018," a NHMRC spokesperson told Gizmodo Australia.
Advocacy groups say it is 'unethical' to test on primates
Following the baboon escape on Tuesday, Humane Research Australia CEO's Helen Marston has slammed the facilities saying the existence of them is unethical and a waste of public funding.
"Not only is this a cruel and unethical industry, it is a huge waste of precious resources – funding and time that would be better spent on research methods that are applicable to humans – not a pseudo-model of a human that is more likely to lead to erroneous data," Marston said in a recent press release.
"Sadly, the three baboons captured will now face a lifetime of imprisonment, being subjected to invasive experiments." Gizmodo Australia has contacted NSW Health and Sydney Local Health District for more information regarding the care of the baboons and where they're being held now.
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