The American Physiological Society (APS) has issued the following statement in response to the announcement on the use of chimpanzees in medical research:
“The American Physiological Society looks forward to a careful review of Dr. Collins’ decision regarding NIH’s implementation of the IOM principles and criteria. The APS previously offered comments on the Working Group report. We are hopeful that Dr. Collins has taken into account our concerns, which include implementing flexible, outcome-oriented guidelines for chimpanzee housing and social groups; making it possible to increase the size of the research colony if needed; and assessing whether adjustments to the Working Group’s ambitious timeline are needed.
“NIH’s decisions on its research program is being made at the same time that the Fish and Wildlife Service has asked for comments on a proposal to designate captive chimpanzees as endangered, which would severely limit their use in research. The NIH review has focused on human health needs, while the FWS has focused on preserving chimpanzees as a species. However, it is crucial for both agencies to take a broader view. Although each has a specific mission, Americans will be ill-served if these agencies pursue piecemeal policies that fail to acknowledge the special circumstances surroundings chimpanzees in closed research colonies and the value of judiciously-conducted chimpanzee research to advance both human and animal health.”
Background on the Issue
In 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) was asked to assess whether chimpanzees are needed for research on human health issues now and for the foreseeable future. A panel of experts reviewed privately- and federally-funded health research over the past 10 years. Its conclusion, released in 2011 was that most research questions that previously required chimpanzees can now be answered by using some combination of new technologies, other animal models, or human studies. However, chimpanzee research is still needed on a few critical topics. One such area is developing a prophylactic vaccine for Hepatitis C, a burgeoning health crisis in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some chimpanzee studies are also needed to develop monoclonal antibody treatments for certain cancers and auto-immune disorders. The IOM affirmed the value of continuing comparative genetics and behavioral research with chimpanzees and suggested a possible future need for chimpanzee studies to develop a prophylactic vaccine against Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), which can cause severe illness in young children. At the same time, the panel proposed strict ethical and scientific criteria to be applied to research with chimpanzees. A summary of the IOM report may be found at http://bit.ly/14aDxSx.
It is notable that the scope of the IOM’s task did not include a reviewing research that benefits chimpanzees, such as efforts to develop a vaccine against diseases such as Ebola, a major threat to chimpanzees and other apes in the wild.
NIH Working Group
When Dr. Collins received the IOM report, he placed a temporary moratorium on new research involving chimpanzees and asked a Working Group to develop an implementation plan. Again, this was focused exclusively on human health research.
Fish and Wildlife Service
In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) undertook a status review of chimpanzees under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Earlier this month, the FWS recently announced a proposed rule to re-classify captive chimpanzees as endangered. Previously, wild chimpanzees were classified as endangered, while captive chimpanzees – including research animals – were “split listed” as threatened. The proposed change in the status of captive chimpanzees is based upon ongoing threats to chimpanzees in the wild, and a review of the ESA that led FWS to conclude it does not have the authority to assign captive chimpanzees threatened status when wild chimpanzees are endangered.
Because the ESA was written to promote conservation, the law prohibits research with endangered animals with narrow exceptions primarily related to species survival. Moreover, the process of obtaining permits for these exceptions is cumbersome and time-consuming.
Chimpanzees in U.S. research colonies represent an international health resource, as the APS noted in its earlier comments to FWS. The research colonies are carefully regulated, responsibly managed, and their existence does not exacerbate the threats to chimpanzees in the wild. Removing chimpanzees from the wild has been prohibited since they were added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in the mid-1970s so it has been decades since any wild-caught chimpanzees have been brought into research colonies. The factors that jeopardize survival of chimpanzees in the wild include poachers who kill multiple adults to capture infants to sell as pets; killing chimpanzees for the bush meat trade; infectious diseases (including some transmitted from humans to animals); and habitat destruction due to human encroachment.
It was encouraging that in announcing its proposed rule, the FWS said in an FAQ that NIH would “work closely with the Service to ensure NIH policies comply with the final conservation guidelines for captive chimpanzees while preserving NIH’s ability to conduct necessary biomedical research.”
American Physiological Society