NIH will limit chimp research

On Thursday, December 15, 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that the agency will adopt new stringent criteria limiting research on chimpanzees. The criteria and other recommendations about instituting special conditions for use of chimpanzees were developed by an Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee, which released a full report shortly before NIH’s response.

Among other recommendations, the report, entitled “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity,” called for appointment of an independent oversight committee. NIH Director Francis Collins announced that the agency will appoint a working group in the near future to evaluate projects using chimpanzees against the new, strict criteria. He estimated that perhaps 50 percent of the 37 currently funded projects that use chimpanzees as research subjects will not meet the criteria and will need to be phased out.

Meanwhile, no new research projects using chimpanzees will be considered until further notice. Also, any chimpanzees currently on “inactive” status will continue to be on inactive status, which applies to the nearly 200 chimpanzees currently at the Alamogordo, New Mexico facility.

It was the controversy over the Alamogordo chimps’ fate that prompted the IOM committee’s formation, instigated by U.S. Senators in response to alarm by animal protection advocates and then-New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. NIH had announced in 2010 that the Alamogordo chimpanzees, who had not been used in research for 10 years, were going to be moved to a major research center where they were expected to be made available for various experimental purposes.

Although 25 of them have already been transported to the research center in Texas, they are also considered inactive, and will be spared assignment to any new experiments, at least until NIH releases its plan to implement the recommendations of the IOM report.

The surprising speed with which the NIH made its commitment to adopt the IOM recommendations likely was a reflection of the level of public concern about chimpanzees. At a briefing by the IOM committee, it was reported that over 5,800 individual “inputs” were submitted on the committee’s work—more than they had ever received before.

At the committee’s August 2011 meeting, oral comments from interested parties included many animal protection organizations and AAVS’s affiliate, the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation, which highlighted the benefits of alternatives to the use of chimpanzees. Scientific experts at the same meeting confirmed that they had moved away from using chimpanzees to other, alternative methods of research. Another influential speaker was well-known chimpanzee behavior expert Jane Goodall, who urged recognition of the extreme harm caused to chimpanzees when invasive experiments are performed.

Certainly, the American Anti-Vivisection Society does not concur with all of the conclusions of the IOM report. In particular, AAVS would like to have seen endorsement of current efforts calling for a ban on all invasive research on chimpanzees, which has been adopted in virtually all other countries.

However, AAVS President Sue Leary, who attended the IOM briefing on the report, observed that this was truly a turning point in the debate over invasive research on chimpanzee subjects. “The committee has performed an important service and definitively refuted the assertions that chimpanzees are necessary and justified for a broad range of experiments that are vital to human health,” she said . “The debate has shifted as a result of this report and NIH’s immediate decision to adopt it.”

Many questions remain, but AAVS sees the IOM report and NIH’s response as significant, positive signs indicating that it is a matter of when, not if, invasive experiments on chimpanzees will end.
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