On the heels of protests from the former governor of New Mexico and famed primatologist Jane Goodall, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has decided to delay moving a colony of aging research chimpanzees from unofficial retirement in New Mexico to an active research facility in Texas—- and has enlisted the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to weigh in on US policies regarding the use of chimps in medical research.
The NIH notified then-governor Bill Richardson of the decision last Thursday (30 December), at the end of his final week in office, according to this article in the Albuquerque Journal, which broke the story. Richardson had urged the agency in August to commission the NAS study and to convert the New Mexico facility into a permanent sanctuary for the chimps. The Journal quoted Richardson spokesman Alarie Ray-Garcia as saying that the NAS study is expected to postpone the chimp transfer for about two years.
Officials at the NAS and at the biomedical agency were not available for comment immediately today, but this space will be updated as soon as either responds.
Others were pleased to weigh in on the decision. “We are delighted for two reasons,” says John Pippin, a cardiologist who is senior medical and research adviser at Physicans Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal rights group based in Washington, D.C. that filed a formal complaint with the government about the proposed transfer. “First, because we feel this was a wrong decision for scientific and ethical reasons, and secondarily because out of this will come a long overdue analysis of the role of chimpanzees in medical research in the United States.”
In August the biomedical agency announced that later this year it would be moving the 186 aging chimps now housed at the Alamogordo Primate Facility to the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas. Both facilities are funded by NIH, but the agency says that economies of scale allow the San Antonio facility to house chimps more cheaply.
The biomedical agency defended the Alamogordo chimps’ continued use in research on the grounds that they are the only animal models for developing a hepatitis C vaccine, and that they may be useful for studying diseases of aging.
The United States and Gabon are the only countries that still officially support chimpanzee research; the United Kingdom banned it in 1997. In 2010, the European Union banned all great ape research.
UPDATE January 4, 2011, 4:50 pm: The National Institutes of Health released this statement this afternoon, confirming its recent decision, and noting that it has requested from NAS’s Institute of Medicine an “in-depth analysis to reassess the scientific need for the continued use of chimpanzees to accelerate biomedical discoveries.” During this time, the NIH statement says, “Alamogordo chimpanzees will not be used in invasive research.”
The NAS also released this December 15 letter requesting the NAS study, from Democratic New Mexico senators Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman and from Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALAMOGORDO PRIMATE FACILITY