WASHINGTON, Dec 15, 2011 (AFP) - The leading US medical research agency
said Thursday it would review all government-funded experiments on chimpanzees
after an independent panel of experts urged strict limits on use of the
The head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said he
agreed with the findings of the non-governmental Institute of Medicine and
would move quickly to implement the changes it advised.
While stopping short of an outright ban, the IOM called for research on the
great apes to continue only if there is no other model available, the research
could not be performed ethically on humans, and it would hinder progress
against life-threatening conditions if halted.
"The committee concludes that while the chimpanzee has been a valuable
animal model in the past, most current biomedical research use of chimpanzees
is not necessary," the IOM said in its report.
Chimps may still be necessary in the development of vaccines against
hepatitis C, for short-term continued study of monoclonal antibody research
against bacteria and viruses, comparative genome studies and behavioral
The IOM is a respected group of medical experts that advises
decision-makers and the public on matters of health and policy. Its
recommendations were the first uniform set of criteria to judge the necessity
of chimps in NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research.
When chimpanzees are used, the studies should "provide otherwise
unattainable insight into comparative genomics, normal and abnormal behavior,
mental health, emotion or cognition," the IOM said.
In addition, all experiments must be performed "in a manner that minimizes
pain and distress, and is minimally invasive."
In response, Collins said he would move as quickly as possible to implement
its recommendations, reviewing ongoing research with NIH-owned chimpanzees on
a "project-by project" basis, but declined to say how long a formal review
"Projects that are found not to meet those standards will be phased out,
but in a fashion that preserves the value of research already conducted," he
said, estimating that 50 percent of the current 37 studies could be axed.
"Effective immediately, NIH will not issue any new awards for research
involving chimpanzees until processes for implementing the recommendations are
As of May, there were 937 chimpanzees available for research in the United
States. The US government supports 436 of them, and the rest are owned and
used for research by private industry.
Despite a swell of controversy in recent years, the United States has
continued to allow medical studies on chimps covering HIV/AIDS vaccines,
hepatitis C, malaria, respiratory viruses, brain and behavior.
However, these studies are quite rare, making up just 53 of the 94,000
active projects sponsored by the NIH in 2011, or 0.056 percent of all
federally funded US research.
Animal rights groups say the United States spends $30 million a year on
chimp research and care that could be directed to better alternatives,
especially given the intelligence of chimps and their endangered status in the
"There are so many reasons why we have ethical concerns," Humane Society
spokeswoman Kathleen Conlee told AFP, applauding the NIH move but urging
federal protective legislation and a phase-out of all chimp research over
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also welcomed the IOM report
and said "a blanket denunciation of all experiments on chimpanzees should be
the next step."
A group that represents scientists who use animals for research, the
National Association for Biomedical Research, recalled that chimps "have made
invaluable contributions to science and medicine, including the development of
vaccines for hepatitis A and B."
However, vice president Matt Bailey said, "NABR goes where the science
takes us and the IOM recommendation is supported by extensive scientific data."
An NIH proposal to reintroduce 200 retired chimpanzees into research
colonies last year caused mounting public outcry and led to the review of
chimp research by the IOM.
The NIH called for a moratorium on breeding chimps for research back in
1995, and as a result the US federally funded research population will
"largely cease to exist" by 2037, the IOM said.
European Union facilities have not conducted any research on chimps since
1999, and a formal ban on using great apes in research -- including
chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans -- was issued last year.