Updated 26 July.
A bill that would end invasive experimentation on great apes in the United States took another step towards becoming law today, when a key Senate committee passed The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011.
The voice vote by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee marked the first time that any version of the legislation, first introduced in the House in 2008, has received a Congressional committee’s explicit approval. Supporters say it gives the bill momentum even in a Congress that is virtually paralysed when it comes to passing legislation in the run-up to November’s presidential election.
“The House was waiting for some kind of movement in the Senate and now they’ve seen it. This is a wonderful event for people who have been tracking this legislation,” says Elizabeth Kucinich, the director of government affairs at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an advocacy group based in Washington DC that says that non-animal alternatives have made the use of chimpanzees in research obsolete.
The bill would phase out, over a three-year period, invasive experimentation on chimpanzees, and would permanently retire hundreds of chimps owned by the US National Institutes of Health. It would also prohibit the use of US government dollars to support great-ape research offshore. (The bill also protects bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons, none of which are now used in invasive research in the United States.)
A compromise that was negotiated by lawmakers behind the scenes in recent months seems to have cleared the way for today’s vote, by the committee that is the gatekeeper for the legislation in the Senate.
The bill as passed included an amendment crafted by Senators Barbara Boxer (Democrat of California) and Ben Cardin (Democrat of Maryland). Called a “contingency clause”, it allows invasive great-ape research if it becomes necessary to address a new, emerging or re-emerging disease.
The amendment authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to decide, in a given case, that chimp research may be necessary, and then establishes a task force to evaluate and authorize the proposed research. The task force would have to ensure that the research comports with the recommendations of the landmark Institute of Medicine report from last December, ‘Chimpanzees in biomedical and behavioral research: assessing the necessity‘.
Boxer, who chairs the committee, called the legislation “important”, saying: “Current research is rapidly moving away from the use of chimps. We have a responsibility to switch to alternative methods where there is strong evidence that the same results can be achieved without testing on great apes.”
That was not enough to satisfy Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma who, with two Republican colleagues, voted against the proposal in the committee. Inhofe said that the bill “goes too far… potentially causing unacceptable losses to public health”.
But according to the bill’s backers, the amendment, made in the wake of a hearing by the same Senate committee in April, has garnered buy-in from senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its health subcommittee. They have jurisdiction over the bill in the House.
“I am optimistic that today’s approval by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee creates sufficient momentum for this common sense bipartisan bill to become law this year,” said Representative Roscoe Bartlett (Republican of Maryland), a human physiologist and former primate researcher who is the bill’s main sponsor in the House.
The bill’s opponents contend that it’s highly unlikely that the bill will move, in the waning days of a distracted Congress, through the floor votes required in both the House and the Senate for it to become law.
“Given the volume of weighty business Congress has on its plate between now and the end of the year, it is hard to imagine that this will become law in this Congress,” says Carrie Wolinetz, the associate vice-president for federal relations at the association of american iniversities (AAU). The AAU lays out its reasons for opposing the Great Ape Protection Act here; among them is the fact that it would end research beneficial to chimpanzees themselves, such as work towards an Ebola vaccine. The virus has been devastating chimpanzees in the wild.
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) also vehemently opposes the bill, including its latest, amended version. The group issued this press release expressing its “profound disappointment” with the committee’s action.
In this letter to members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, the FASEB argues that the contingency clause would make it prohibitively difficult to quickly harness chimpanzees for research on a fast-moving, emerging disease:
“This bill would require a time-consuming, multi-step approval process before scientists could gain access to the chimpanzees necessary to study such diseases. If chimpanzees were moved to a sanctuary, the infrastructure that currently supports them would be dismantled, making it almost impossible to activate a new research program quickly.”
You can watch today’s brief discussion of the bill by the Senate committee beginning about 45 minutes into this videocast.
Nature looked in-depth at the controversial issues surrounding chimpanzee research in this news feature last year.