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NIH ends era of U.S. medical research on chimpanzees

"Jody," a chimpanzee who was used for breeding and biomedical research at Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Washington. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

The National Institutes of Health has quietly ended the federal government’s long and controversial history of using chimpanzees for biomedical research.

Director Francis Collins announced Wednesday that 50 chimpanzees held by the government for medical research will be sent to sanctuaries. His decision came a little more than two years after NIH decided to release more than 300 chimps at research facilities across the country and resettle them in more-humane conditions.

“It is time to acknowledge that there is no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available for invasive biomedical research,” Collins wrote to NIH administrators, according to an e-mail sent by a spokeswoman.

NIH started phasing out its funding and use of research chimps before 2013, when it housed nearly 400 in states such as Texas. “Americans have benefited greatly from the chimpanzees’ service to biomedical research,” he said then, “but new scientific methods and technologies have rendered their use in research largely unnecessary.”

At that time, he called the decision a milestone, saying chimps are “special animals, our closest relatives,” with DNA that is “98 percent . . . the same as ours.” The decision leaves about 400 chimpanzees available for research at private facilities. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, vowed to continue the campaign for their release.

[Only in the U.S. are chimps used in medical research]

NIH’s decision in 2013 was the result of pressure from activists such as the Humane Society, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Jane Goodall Institute and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Their constant pressure helped to persuade the Fish and Wildlife Service to list captive and wild chimps as endangered species.

Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said a 1990 decision by the agency to classify wild chimps as endangered, while listing captive chimps as threatened (a designation that carries fewer protections) was flawed. “The rule proposed today would correct this inconsistency,” Ashe said in July 2013, weeks before NIH released all but the 50 chimps.

In two years, NIH received just a single request to use one of its chimps for research, and that was withdrawn, said John Pippin, director of academic affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The Fish and Wildlife decision now requires researchers to obtain a permit to use an endangered animal for life-threatening research.

[Chimps given human rights by U.S. court for the first time (sort of)]

“Chimpanzee research had basically stopped,” Pippin said. “The bar for that, as you can imagine, was very high.” And it will continue to be high, he said, for chimps still in private captivity. “Anyone who wants to use them will have to get through Fish and Wildlife, plus they won’t have NIH funding, which was the majority of all research funding.”

NIH had a limited number of sanctuary spaces available — about 150 — when its decision was made in 2013. About 110 chimps were already housed at one sanctuary, Chimp Haven in Louisiana, at a cost of $2 million yearly.

[Wild chimpanzees drink alcoholic palm wine — and get tipsy]

Once they are in a sanctuary, chimps cannot be moved back to medical research. NIH said it would ask Congress for $3 million to house more animals in sanctuaries, in addition to $30 million that federal lawmakers set aside for sanctuaries 15 years ago. Only $800,000 was left. NIH gave no indication in its announcement Wednesday whether the request was granted, modified or rejected.

“I am so excited to share another historic moment for the chimpanzees today,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society.

But the fight isn't over, said Pacelle, the Humane Society president.

“It will take our collective action and resources to push this issue over the finish line but it is the least these chimpanzees deserve after all they have been through,” Pacelle wrote in a blog post.

Correction: An earlier version of this post attributed the quote from Pacelle’s blog post to Conlee. 

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