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NIH Stops Chimp Experiments

No funding for new chimpanzee experiments will be allowed, for now

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A chimpanzee looks on at the Bioparco zoological garden on April 5, 2012 in Rome, Italy.
Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Updated July 03, 2014

2013 Update: NIH has begun transferring chimpanzees to a sanctuary, and an internal working group has recommended that over 300 of the agency's 360 research chimps be released to sanctuaries.

On December 15, 2011, the National Institute of Health announced that they would stop funding for new research using chimpanzees until an internal working group could establish criteria for when chimpanzees can be used. The announcement was the result of a report by the Institute of Medicine that found that "most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary," and determined a set of criteria for when chimpanzees can be used for research:

  • That the knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health;
  • There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects; and
  • The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments (i.e., as would occur in their natural environment) or in natural habitats.

The announcement came from NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, who agreed with the IOM's conclusions and will set up the working group to develop a plan to implement IOM's criteria. No deadline was given in Collins' statement.

IOM found that "some ongoing research on monoclonal antibody therapies, research on comparative genomics, and non-invasive studies of social and behavioral factors that affect the development, prevention, or treatment of disease" may require the use of chimpanzees.

Although Collins' statement does not explain why chimpanzees were singled out in IOM's report, the report was commissioned after public opposition to an announced plan to bring a group of chimps out of "semiretirement" and put them back into scientific experiments. Collins' statement does point out that, "Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom."

Much attention has focused on the similarities between chimpanzees and humans. The analogy sometimes extends to other primates. However, the animal rights position against vivisection is based not on how similar another species is to humans, but on whether an individual or species is sentient. There is therefore no reason to single out chimpanzees for special consideration, because mice, rats, guinea pigs and other animals are also sentient and should not be used by humans.

One of the drawbacks to the IOM report is the possibility that chimps in laboratories might remain there while their fate is being decided. Collins' statement had no deadline for when NIH might resume funding for chimpanzee experiments, so the chimps may be living in laboratory conditions for months or even years. Another problem is the criteria for determining when experiments on chimpanzees is necessary. IOM stated that research on "new, emerging, or re-emerging diseases" could require the use of chimpanzees, so the IOM report could end up having little long-term impact on chimpanzees.

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