News & Alerts

Foundation for Biomedical Research’s Throwback Agenda: Chimpanzees and the Ebola Vaccine

Foundation for Biomedical Research’s Throwback Agenda: Chimpanzees and the Ebola Vaccine

The following is in response to the October 28, 2015 USA Today article, “We’re killing chimps with kindness”.

In an online opinion column, “We’re killing chimps with kindness”, Frankie L. Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR), argues that sacrificing captive chimpanzees is a necessary component of Ebola vaccine development. She opines that what wild populations need in order to be saved from extinction is continued sacrifice of their captive cousins. Trull asserts, “the promise of [an Ebola] vaccine will only [emphasis added] be realized if the United States allows research on chimps.” And that “The new [endangered] designation [for U.S. captive chimpanzees] is intended to save chimpanzees’ lives. Instead, it may kill them.” In my opinion, her arguments again demonstrate the Foundation for Biomedical Research should be named the Foundation for Animal Based Biomedical Research — as a more candid disclosure of its agenda. 

In my thirty years of advocacy to end the cruel, limited, erroneous, as well as largely ineffective and often dangerous use of animals to research, treat and prevent human disease, I cannot remember seeing one article from FBR touting the vast areas of promising biomedical research not involving animal models. Rather, Trull’s opinions seem representative of what would be called lobbying for industries that profit from the breeding and sale of animals, their equipment and supplies for research.

In her USA Today piece, Trull fails to acknowledge scientific evidence presented to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM), from which it concluded, “most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary”— a conclusion echoed by other scientifically advanced nations. The two noted IOM exceptions (the committee was evenly split if they were or were not needed) did not include Ebola vaccine development. Nor does she mention testimony from individuals from our Department of Defense, in support of not using chimpanzees, especially in high risk research.

Further, Trull’s focus on Ebola fails to acknowledge that one of the most promising breakthroughs, the “experimental drug” ZMapp, which has already saved human lives, resulted from research using blood from a handful of humans who survived a deadly outbreak. The immune systems of those who fought off infection provided the path — not infecting healthy animals with immune systems different than ours.

Admittedly, ZMapp was first tested in monkeys. However, as an opponent of all animal use, I remind that the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory authority for vaccines. FDA approval is based on demonstration of safety and efficacy as assured by testing and validation. Importantly, safety and potency testing may consist of either in vivo (in animals) or in vitro (alternatives) tests. In vitro potency tests have been successfully used in the development of vaccines including hepatitis A/B vaccines, inactivated polio vaccine, polysaccharide and polysaccharide conjugate vaccines, and human papillomavirus vaccine.1

Notably, according to former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt “… nine out of ten experimental drugs fail in clinical studies because we cannot accurately predict how they will behave in people based on laboratory and animal studies.” Of the remaining 8-10% that make it into human use, more than half have to be recalled due to unforeseen or worse than expected effects.2 Translated, this implies that ZMapp did not have to be tested in monkeys.  And that if the monkey trials had instead suggested it was ineffective and unsafe, the drug would not have made it to lifesaving human trials — a highly possible scenario since 90% of drugs tested in animals do not “accurately predict” human outcome.

Were it not for the tactics of those with a vested interest in maintaining ‘status quo’ animal use (like FBR), scientific progress toward replacing animals with safer, more humane and better science, would advance at an accelerating rate. Trull also avoids mentioning that the competitive need to be the first to develop a vaccine against Ebola is, from the pharmaceutical and research community’s perspective, for human use and, notably, for higher profits. For global populations, the interest is in an affordable vaccine for widespread human use in areas where poverty and disease prevalence would make any associated cost prohibitive.

Trull’s alarmist perspective is not defendable by fact. Certainly she has the right to support anyone she chooses — in this case research at the New Iberia Research Center. She does not, however, have the right to portray herself as an authority and then present only a small, exaggerated, inaccurate and therefore biased piece of the story.

A vaccine for Ebola is being developed without chimpanzees.  Chimpanzees are NOT needed nor guaranteed to be recipients of it in the wild. As such, we are back to our moral imperative to do whatever we can to protect a species — even in captivity — valued by nature, humans and themselves. Captive chimpanzees are no longer available to “maybe this will work” research that led to decades of suffering and death for our closest relatives. Trull needs to stop working to reverse our moral and scientific advances.

Chimpanzees have suffered hardships of laboratory captivity far too long, lost family members, infants being ripped from mothers and other atrocities, in the name of science. They have been transferred from lab to lab for decades of ‘hard’ research in multiple areas of disease. Individuals have endured up to hundreds of knockdowns with dart guns, been infected with deadly viruses like that responsible for the painfully degenerative and deadly disease TSE (Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies), at a time when humans were already diagnosed and tragically dying the very same slow progressive deaths as the “chimpanzee model.”  And though genetically related, we know they hold major differences in gene expression, which make conclusions at best a guess as to the actual implications for humans.

Chimpanzees have been used as mere commodities to purportedly benefit humans since, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) admits, the “mistake” of denying captive chimpanzees full protections of an endangered status. Trull’s throwback agenda seems to me an attempt to regain chimpanzees’ financial benefit to researchers, their institutions and the companies that fund and direct her organization.

If you want the breakthroughs humans and other animals need, then do not subscribe to the rhetoric behind the fatalistic attitude that without animal research we and they will all perish. Shame on this kind of fear mongering. Instead be assured that as we move further from our reliance on limited and dangerous animal models, and instead toward knowledge gained through 21st century scientific and technological advances, we will be on the path to medical progress that will consistently, predictively and effectively give us all what we need.

1 McFarland R, Verthelyi D, Casey W, Arciniega J, Isbrucker R, Schmitt M, Finn T, Descamps J, Horiuchi Y, Sesardic D, Stickings P, Johnson NW, Lipscomb E, Allen D. Non-animal replacement methods for human vaccine potency testing: state-of-the-science and future directions. Proc Vaccinol 2011; 5:16-32

2 GAO/PEMD-90–15 FDA Drug Review: Postapproval Risks 1976–1985.

Theodora Capaldo, EdD

Theodora Capaldo, EdD

Theodora Capaldo, EdD, is President Emeritus of NEAVS.

Theodora Capaldo, EdD signature

Theodora Capaldo, EdD