No More Chimps: The NIH Needs to Find New Test Subjects

The age-old use of chimps as the proverbial guinea pigs in testing out new pharmaceuticals has been dealt a major blow.

Jan 23 2013, 7:00am

The age-old use of chimps as the proverbial guinea pigs in testing out new pharmaceuticals has been dealt a major blow. On Tuesday, the National Institute of Health's Council of Councils working group approved a proposal to remove all but 50 of the NIH's 451 resident test chimps from its labs, immediately. The recommendations are now open to public comments and will only take effect if approved by the NIH director in late March. Although when the Council of Councils issues a recommendation, it's not to be taken lightly.

The 401 chimps set to retire from the NIH will be sent to a national sanctuary. The remaining 50 will be kept in the lab and absorb the workload of the government scientists' experiments, which is being cut in half by order of the same working group. The group's report says a chunk of the NIH's 21 current biomedical and behavioral experiments don't meet a relatively new list of criteria established in December 2011. 

The working group's report stems from a two-year examination of the NIH's use of chimps in research, based on guidelines adopted by NIH Director Francis Collins, a man who is devoutly religious and skeptical on the theory of evolution. According to the report, research involving chimps "has rarely accelerated new discoveries or the advancement of human health for infectious diseases" – save for, you know, the hepatitis viruses. The recommendations note that chimps should only be used as a last resort for studying a threat to human health.

Another part of the reason for ousting the chimps is that "the development of new or novel methods might be hampered" by scientists' complacency in using them, the report says. "There would be little incentive to find alternatives so long as the chimpanzee model is available." The report notes that "suitable alternative models are already currently available" but doesn't go into details. At one point the report notes in passing that genetically altered mice can take up the slack for chimps. (Luckily, we'll still be allowed to launch chimps and monkeys into space.) 

Back to the 50 chimps who get to stay at NIH. The report proposes new standards for their social and physical wellbeing: They must live in groups of at least seven; they each need 1,000 square feet of room, including space to climb; they need access to the outdoors, even when it's raining; and they need opportunities to forage for food. Essentially, chimps need space to be chimps. More than just test subjects, they are, after all, the species closest to humans. Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research at the Humane Society of the United States, told the New York Times that "Not a single laboratory in the United States meets these recommendations."

Meanwhile, Chimp Haven, the NIH-owned sanctuary in Louisiana where test chimps retire, is nearly out of vacancies for new tenants. An NIH official told NPR that the institute is on target to hit its $30 million spending cap on Chimp Haven this summer.