NEW DELHI--Armed with a government order and escorted by police, animal activists yesterday seized and released into the wild 50 rhesus monkeys being used for testing a new drug. The episode is the latest battle in a fight over the country's new animal welfare rules, which scientists fear could halt drug testing in India.
The animals were being kept at the National Center for Laboratory Animal Sciences (NCLAS) in Hyderabad for use in testing a potential drug against immune disorders. The activists, brandishing a government order citing NCLAS's failure to adhere to new animal welfare rules, released the primates into a forest about 400 kilometers away. "The law is the same for everybody," says Maneka Gandhi, the social justice minister and an ardent spokesperson for animal rights, who asserts that the lab ignored repeated notices over the past 8 months to ameliorate the living conditions of its animals.
A crisis has been brewing since December, when a law went into effect that aims to safeguard animals used in 5000 labs across the country (Science, 11 December 1998, p. 1967). Among other things, the law requires facilities to win approval for animal experiments from the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals. Last month the committee threatened NCLAS with closure for housing primates in cages that are too small and for conducting experiments on captured wild monkeys instead of lab-bred animals (Science, 9 July, p. 180). Half of India's facilities could be shut down if held to the same standards, says microbiologist Nirmal Kumar Ganguly, director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research.
News of the government-sanctioned action stirred up the annual meeting of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in New Delhi, which passed a resolution seeking to persuade Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee to intervene. Warns INSA president Goverdhan Mehta, "India's national interests are going to suffer very badly if all drug testing is halted like this."