End of a Dark Era? NIH to Retire Most Research Chimps
Jul 02, 2013 • News Articles

Keim, B. Wired. June 26, 2013

Some of the fine print remains to be translated, but the writing is on the wall for invasive, government-supported chimpanzee research in the United States: At long last, it’s coming to an end.

The National Institutes of Health today announced that 310 captive chimpanzees will be retired from medical research. Genetic and behavioral studies may continue in sanctuary settings, but no longer will those chimpanzees be forced to undergo procedures that would be unconscionable if performed in humans.

Up to 50 chimpanzees will be kept in reserve for possible use in future medical experiments, a likelihood that disturbs animal welfare advocates. That decision will, however, be revisited every five years. It’s possible that government-supported medical experiments on chimpanzees will come to an end altogether.

“Chimpanzees are very special animals. They are our closest relatives,” said NIH director Francis Collins at a press conference. “We believe they deserve special consideration.”

“It’s overwhelming to hear this commitment,” said Kathleen Conlee, animal research director with the Humane Society of the United States. “I’m so happy for the chimps that we’re moving in the right direction.” Even so, she’s more measured than Collins in her enthusiasm.

Back in 2010, the Humane Society was among the protesters of an NIH plan to transfer 209 retired chimpanzees at New Mexico’s Alamogordo Primate Facility back into research. Many of those chimpanzees had experienced decades of misery and mistreatment, and their plight soon gained national attention.

Confronted with unexpectedly large and impassioned opposition, the NIH asked the Institute of Medicine, the nation’s foremost science advisory body, to review the medical necessity of chimpanzee experiments. Initially the NIH asked that ethics be omitted from the discussion — but with chimps, the science and ethics are inseparable.

Chimpanzees are, as Collins said, humanity’s closest relative, and the similarities are more than genetic. Decades of research indicates that they’re intelligent, emotional beings with a consciousness that in many ways resembles our own.

Chimps used in medical experiments should be treated as humanely as possible, they said, and should only be used when it’s absolutely necessary to save human lives and no alternatives exist. Most current experiments don’t meet that standard. The IOM urged the NIH to take a long, hard look at its own chimp use.

In September 2012, the NIH preemptively retired 110 of its chimps, and awaited the logistical recommendations of another committee, the so-called Council of Councils, on how research chimps should be treated and whether even more should be retired. Those recommendations came in March of this year. Today’s NIH decision represents their near-complete acceptance.

In addition to retiring most of their chimps, the NIH pledged not to breed more, and said breeding would be prohibited by private researchers who own chimpanzees but receive NIH funds. “The breeding is key. It’s the long-term solution, so that 20 years we’re not talking about this anymore,” said Brian Hare, a Duke University evolutionary anthropologist who studies chimpanzees.

The NIH did leave the door open to eventually adding privately-bred chimpanzees to its reserve colony, though the possibility is professedly slight. “We will encourage investigators to continue to develop alternative research approaches that do not use chimpanzees,” said NIH administrator James Anderson in an email. “We would look very critically at whether there was a need before we considered replenishing the NIH population with private chimpanzees.

Hare echoed Conlee, celebrating the NIH’s decision as a “happy day,” though with some reservations. “It seems like a reasonable compromise,” he said, but professed uncertainty about the rationale for keeping a reserve colony. At the Institute of Medicine’s public hearings, testimonies from private and academic researchers suggested a minimal need for chimps.

“It’s not just that I don’t want to see chimpanzees suffer, but I didn’t take away from the meetings that invasive work is still necessary,” Hare said. “There were private companies saying, ‘We don’t need chimps any more. There are alternatives.’ There was basically a split jury on the hepatitis C work, but a split jury is not evidence that they’re necessary.”

According to the NIH, the reserve colony is justified partly by the possibility that emerging, as-yet-unforeseen diseases could require chimp research. Collins stressed that all research proposals will be evaluated by a newly established chimp oversight committee, ensuring the scientific necessity and proper conduct of research.

“It depends on how the review is structured,” said Hare. “If you have a public representative, someone who’s a chimpanzee welfare advocate, then I think what they’re suggesting is a very responsible approach. If the panel is a bunch of medical researchers, I would be pretty nervous.”

All these issues can be revisited again. The NIH’s plan stipulates that the reserve colony’s fate be reviewed every five years. In the meantime, the circumstances of the 310 newly-retired chimps still need to be determined. They won’t be put back into active research, but their passage into sanctuaries — as opposed to being housed in labs — isn’t yet guaranteed.

“The capacity is not there to handle these animals,” said Collins. “It will require considerable expansion of the sanctuary system.” For this to happen, Congress needs to update the CHIMP Act, which was written in 2000 and limits NIH spending on sanctuary care. As a result, money previously earmarked for chimp experiments can’t now be used to house them.

Budgetary issues are also relevant to the lone Council of Councils recommendation rejected by the NIH: how much space each chimpanzee needs in order to have the “ethologically appropriate” daily experiences necessary for their physical and mental well-being.

According to the Council, this amounts to 1,000 square feet per individual, roughly the floor space of a decently sized one-bedroom apartment. Many primatologists think that number is unreasonably low, but according to NIH, it may be too high. No scientific consensus exists, said Collins, and that the issue needs further review. “Obviously this has an implication for the costs,” he said.

“The science is clear that chimpanzees need more space,” rejoined Hare. “In the wild, every day they walk about two to three miles. What other science does NIH need?”

Anthropologist Daniel Povinelli of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who studies chimpanzee cognition, warned that setting low space requirements “could open the door to designating some existing biomedical centers as part of the federal sanctuary system. This would not be in the best long-term interests of the chimpanzees.”

One variable in all these equations is an upcoming U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision on the status of chimpanzees under the Endangered Species Act. As of now, captive chimps are categorized differently than their wild, officially endangered kin.

If captive chimps are also considered endangered, invasive research will be even harder to conduct, especially by private companies. Approximately 500 chimpanzees are owned by pharmaceutical companies and private research centers. Compared to the NIH, that research is shrouded it secrecy. “That would significantly curb any private use,” said Conlee of an endangered designation. “There would be transparency.”

Regardless of Fish and Wildlife’s decision, though, the new NIH plan should have ripple effects. For decades, the NIH was the world’s single largest supporter of medical experiments on chimps. As of today, that’s been turned to support for a single reserve colony that could well be disbanded.

“My guess is that, in a few years, it’ll be clear that keeping 50 in reserve will no longer necessary,” Hare said. “There are too many other resources that are far more powerful and cost-effective. As that becomes more accepted at the NIH, they’ll realize they don’t need that last population.”

“We’re going to be doing all that we can to get the 310 chimps into sanctuary,” said Conlee. “Once we’re done getting the 310 out, we can turn to the 50.”

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