The NIH released a statement today announcing that it will significantly curtail the number of captive chimpanzees used in NIH-funded research in a sweeping policy change that researchers worldwide fear could stall critical research and drug development for the world’s deadliest diseases. The policy change, which was implemented by NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., and announced on the NIH website, adopted a majority of the recommendations put forth by the NIH Council of Councils, which developed its recommendations from a December 15, 2011 Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) report: Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity. The report was originally commissioned a year before by the NIH Director.
The NIH, which currently maintains and utilizes captive chimpanzees for research, will reduce their number to only 50, designating the remaining chimpanzees — about 310 in total — to the Federal Sanctuary System. The Federal Sanctuary System was established in 2002 and is currently maintained by the federally funded NIH.
The crux of the NIH’s decision to decommission such a large percentage of the institute’s research chimpanzees, according to Dr. Collins, is that medical research has progressed to the point that the use of chimpanzees is no longer a necessity:
“Americans have benefitted greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research, but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary,” said Dr. Collins. “Their likeness to humans has made them uniquely valuable for certain types of research, but also demands greater justification for their use. After extensive consideration with the expert guidance of many, I am confident that greatly reducing their use in biomedical research is scientifically sound and the right thing to do.”
This perspective has come in large part from the IOM report, which, while it “does not endorse an outright ban on chimpanzee research,” does argue that the need for research chimpanzees in medical research going forward is now greatly diminished.
It remains to be seen to what degree the recent announcement from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s consideration to designate captive chimpanzees as “endangered” played into the NIH’s decision to release this policy change now. while the FWS’ announcement, which was made just a week ago, was not listed as one of the “events” leading to the policy change, the NIH’s press release did note the following:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently issued a proposed rule (PDF – 695KB) that lists captive chimpanzees as endangered. NIH expects to adapt its policies for research projects using chimpanzees to comply with the conservation guidelines that the USFWS establishes in a potential final rule.
While the NIH’s motives for implementing its drawdown of research chimpanzees is different from that of the FWS — whose Director Dan Ashe stated publicly that “The most important thing about this is it brings attention to the plight of chimpanzees in the wild” — the FWS’ new designation could make the NIH’s move moot, requiring that even the remaining 50 research chimpanzees retained by the institute unusable without a special permit that some in the research community believe could be prohibitively difficult to obtain.
Texas Biomedical Research Institute “Disappointed in most of the responses of NIH to the Council of Council’s recommendations”
The Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio is one of the first research institutes to weigh in on the NIH’s policy change, expressing a disappointment in most of the responses of NIH to the Council of Council’s recommendations.” The Texas Biomedical Research Institute is one of the premier research institutions in the world today that effectively utilize research chimpanzees for the development of treatments, vaccines, and cures for deadly diseases, such as Hepatitis B. In an exclusive BioNews Texas feature, we presented Texas Biomedical Research Institute Chief Scientific Officer Dr. John VandeBerg’s candid reactions to the FWS’ proposed rule last week, as well as a look into the care and maintenance of research chimpanzees at their own facility.
In their reaction statement today, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute noted that, “Although some important biomedical research can be conducted with an initial pool of 50 chimpanzees, this arbitrarily chosen number is not sufficient to enable the rapid development of better preventions and cures for hepatitis B and C, which kill a million people every year.”
The statement went on to add that, many of the diseases that research chimpanzees are used for in medical research in treating humans are also ravaging and contributing to the extinction of other primate species, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, such as Ebola hemorrhagic fever and chimpanzee AIDS: “More than 40 percent of the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall are infected with the virus that causes AIDS in chimpanzees, and their death rate is 10-16 times that of uninfected chimpanzees.”
Since the NIH stipulates that the remaining 50 chimpanzees to be retained for research will not be bred in order to re-populate the group, Texas Biomed notes that, “as the number of chimpanzees eligible for research decreases below 50 as a result of death from natural causes, the pace of research will be slowed even more, and human and chimpanzee lives will be lost unnecessarily due to delays in bringing new drugs and vaccines to market.”
In response to the Council of Council’s interpretation of the IOM’s initial report, Texas Biomed also noted that other findings of the report were largely ignored in their policy change today:
Moreover, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) report recognized that new, emerging, or re-emerging diseases that are certain to arise may present challenges that require the use of chimpanzees. In fact, hundreds of chimpanzees have been required for research on each past occasion when a new disease that required research with chimpanzees emerged. The IOM report recommended that NIH establish a chimpanzee breeding program to preserve a pool of chimpanzees for future research needs, and such a breeding program is essential to protecting humanity from future pandemics.
The new NIH policy announcement regarding its research chimpanzees comes during a 60-day period of public discourse over the FWS’ proposed rule. The issue over whether it is a sound decision to retire the use of research chimpanzees for medical research is bound to escalate over the coming months ahead of the FWS’ final decision, which could potentially end the use of chimpanzees in research entirely.