Animal Ethics: What Will Happen to China's Famous Cloned Monkeys?

In late 2017, Chinese scientists saw the birth of the world's first primates cloned by the same method used to clone Dolly the sheep. Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, two adorable crab-eating macaques, took the world by storm, and scientists believe that they are just the first in a long line of monkeys that will be cloned for medical research.

Mu-ming Poo, one of the scientists who helped clone the monkeys, calls them "national treasures." But what will happen to them now that the photo-ops and media coverage have subsided?

Predictably, some animal rights and welfare advocates weren't pleased about the births, claiming that Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were the product of suffering and would suffer in their lives.

Cloned monkeys Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are seen at the nonhuman primate facility at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, on January 20. Chinese scientists have broken a technical barrier that could open the door to copying humans. Reuters

Researchers had implanted 21 surrogate macaque mothers with 79 embryos, but almost all of those macaques died before being born, highlighting the risky nature of exploratory science. The two mothers that carried their embryos to term underwent a cesarean section surgery to retrieve the youngsters, which are now living in incubators.

But Poo says that the twins are doing fantastically and look forward to a good life.

"Most of the time they are playing around like little babies," Poo told Newsweek. "They are kept in human baby incubators…They play with toys and with each other, they are fed by one single person, we have a nurse taking care of these two babies who they love."

Poo says that they are developing normally and that they are going to have a special cage with access to a courtyard and other monkeys when they get bigger. The researchers at his facility plan to monitor their development by brain imaging to see if they continue developing the same way other macaques do, in the hopes that future cloned macaques can be used for biomedical research into brain diseases.

While China doesn't have national, comprehensive laws protecting animal welfare, Poo says that his lab adheres to animal welfare standards set by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. because of the multinational nature of the work they are doing.

"In the U.S. there's a consensus how you treat monkeys," he explained. "And we have to follow the international consensus, otherwise our work would not be recognized, we could not get our paper published, people would not be able to come and use our facility. To use our center everything has to be international, agreeable ethical standards."

Poo explained that the lab will continue to take care of Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua throughout most of their lives, and then they will retire the twins to a macaque farm. Poo says that the macaque farms are internationally certified as humane so that they can legally breed and export the animals to other countries.

Poo also says that cloned macaques are more efficient for use in biomedical studies, so fewer macaques will need to be bred for experiments at all. In his field, he says, it's actually more ethical to clone genetically identical monkeys than to use normal ones.