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Chimpanzee bill receives first hearing

A US Senate bill that would phase out ongoing federally funded invasive research on chimpanzees and prohibit future projects received its first hearing on 24 April.

The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act includes a three year phase out of invasive research on chimpanzees and other great apes funded on federal dime, guarantees retirement to sanctuary habitats for the roughly 500 chimps currently owned by the government, and prohibits breeding and transport for invasive research purposes. Non-invasive studies would remain fair game. Supporters hope it will put an end to chimp mistreatment in labs that fail to meet their social and psychological needs.

The proposed legislation would “allow us to focus on new alternative research methodologies, end a cycle of wasteful and unnecessary research, save money, and protect chimpanzees who have already given so much of their lives to research in the past,” said Martin Wasserman (pictured), a Maryland-based physician and former vaccine researcher at GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, who testified in support of the bill. Because chimps cost between $67 and $35 per day to care for, Wasserman estimated that the legislation would save taxpayers $300 million over the next decade.

A parallel bill in the US House of Representatives was introduced last year and has been referred to subcommittee. The Senate and House bills now have 15 and 164 sponsors respectively. That ‘s already more than the 5 Senate and 165 House sponsors that earlier versions of the bills received during the previous Congressional term, in 2009-2010. In 2008, a lone House bill was only sponsored by 29 representatives. Although observers acknowledge that the bill has a steep hill to climb to become law, particularly during an election year when little in the way of passed legislation is expected from Congress, the growing numbers of sponsors suggest the bill is gaining momentum with each fresh attempt. Some of that momentum may stem from a December 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which concluded that chimpanzees were not essential to the majority of scientific research.

Discussions at the hearing highlighted divided opinions over the IOM report, which did not explicitly rule out the need for chimps in some forms of  medical research, in particular  hepatitis C virus vaccine development through chimp models and potential future applications in the event of an emerging public health emergency. Opponents of the bill see it as an overreach. “This bill goes too far with an outright ban on chimpanzee research,” said Senator James Inhofe (R-OK).

However, Kathleen Conlee vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States,  doesn’t interpret the bill as a ban. “It’s a phase out,” says Conlee, who notes that the bill only targets research that harms chimpanzees mentally or physically, so behavioral research could still receive federal funding.

“During the IOM hearings last year experts in bio-defense testified that chimpanzees would make poor models because of their slow response times, in terms of months rather than days,” says Wasserman, who argues that researchers now have other technologies at their disposal, such as humanized mice, monoclonal antibodies, and in the case of hepatitis C, human subjects.  Wasserman pointed out that although humans and chimps share 95-98% of the same genetic material, human diseases don’t always progress similarly in chimps.

James Anderson, Director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning & Strategic Initiatives at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), testified that alternatives aren’t quite there yet. “There will be emerging, unexpected diseases for which this model will be appropriate, and in the last few decades we have had examples of viral and bacterial infections where the chimpanzee has been the best model,” said Anderson, who said NIH would not support an all out ban on chimp research.

NIH accepted the recommendations of the IOM report and in February 2012, established a working group with members from all 27 agencies to come up with strict criteria to judge whether chimps were vital to proposed research projects and retirement eligibility. Anderson said that NIH expects a report from the working committee by early 2013, at which point the criteria will be open to public comment for 80 days before the rules go into effect.

Wasserman and Conlee are wary that such voluntary measures would make a permanent difference for chimps, hence the necessity of the legislation. “Administrations change, leaders change, and policies change,” said Wasserman. “Passage of this bill is essential to ensure that the unnecessary use of chimpanzees in invasive experimentation will not occur in the future.” Recent controversy at a the New Iberia  Research Center in Louisiana over breeding of NIH-owned chimps despite bans has fueled skepticism about federal oversight of research primates.

Although it’s fate remains uncertain, the proposed legislation has received an atypically high level of bipartisan support. While Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced the Senate version, Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), a former Navy physiologist who once conducted research on animal test subjects, introduced its house counterpart.

Image courtesy of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. 



  1. Report this comment

    Paul Browne said:

    Wasserman repeats the claim that this bill will save the NIH/Taxpayer $300 million over the next decade, but I’ve yet to see any real effort by HSUS or any other proponents of this bill to explain where the funding to care for all these retired chimps will come from.

    The costs of caring for chimpanzees in laboratories and sanctuaries is about the same, as caring for the chimps at Chimp Haven costs $46 per day

    So where will the money to care for these retired chimps come from?

    Given HSUS’s very poor record in funding animal shelters I doubt they will be contributing much. If the NIH ends up picking up the bill then the “cost savings” will be negligible.

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    Kevin Brennan said:

    This should be a debate about the ethical costs and benefits of animal experimentation, not money! Chimps and humans are genetically quite similar, but this is only relevant for genetic diseases, as we’re phenotypically quite different in terms of diseases we’re affected by. Mice and humans share around 85% genetic similarity, and are a far less cruel model.

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    Alice Ra'anan said:

    PCRM and HSUS need to get their story straight. Conlee says a phase out isn’t a ban, yet Wasserman says that the goal is to prevent future research.

    The point is that ending chimpanzee research is as odds with the IOM report. The IOM stated that while the objectives of much current chimpanzee research can be accomplished using other modalities, the U.S. should retain its ability to utilize chimpanzees because they are still needed, e.g., to develop some monoclonal antibody therapies against cancer and autoimmune diseases. The panel split on whether they are also necessary to the development of a prophylactic vaccine against Hepatitis C so that remains an open question.

    The IOM panel stated clearly that it did not recommend a ban, citing also the possibility that in the event of an emerging or re-emerging disease threat, the similarities between the immune systems of humans and chimpanzees might be critical.

    Meanwhile, NIH embraced the IOM report and halted the award of new grants involving chimpanzees until it can implement the IOM’s strict criteria to assess when there is no alternative to chimpanzee research on important health issues.

    It should be noted that the IOM did not even address research at the NIH-supported centers directed towards prevention and treatment of diseases such as Ebola that are decimating chimpanzee populations in the wild. This too would be eliminated under the proposed legislation to the detriment of endangered chimpanzees.

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