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Great Ape bill in US Senate showdown

A bill that would end invasive research on chimpanzees in the United States is this week the subject of behind-the-scenes negotiations in the US Senate. There, supporters are vying to bring it to an up-or-down vote in the coming days, while opponents are doing all they can to prevent this from happening.

This revised version of the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act is the subject of the maneuvering. It was crafted in recent weeks by Maria Cantwell, the Washington state Democrat who is its primary Senate sponsor.

The revisions are intended to address concerns of opponents of the original bill — concerns that include the costs of  implementing it. Both versions of the bill would require  hundreds of  research chimpanzees to be retired to sanctuaries, with attendant construction costs.  This Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assessment in mid-November put the cost of such a change at $56 million between 2013 and 2017. However, this week the CBO, in a reassessment, says that the newly revised bill would cost the government nothing.

Movement of the bill began this summer, when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the earlier version.  Among the changes made since then are an extension, from three years to four, of the time during which invasive research on chimps would need to be phased out.  The newly revised bill also allows the great apes to be held  in laboratory housing after the four years elapse, if sanctuary space is not yet available, thus allowing the government to spread sanctuary construction costs over a longer time.

The revised bill also makes it easier for retired chimps to be pulled back into research if an emergency arises. The earlier iteration required a task force to sign off on new research, after considering public comments.  The revised bill gives sole discretion to decide to use chimpaznees in an emergency like a pandemic to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

However, the heart of the bill — banning invasive research on great apes, whether publicly or privately funded — remains the same, and animal research supporters are still actively opposing it.  The National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) this week issued this “Urgent Alert” asking supporters to lobby their senators to oppose the bill.  (The alert appears to be reacting to the older version of the bill; NABR could not be reached for comment this afternoon.)

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, the Maryland Republican and PhD physiologist who is the bill’s leading sponsor in the House of Representatives, accused NABR today of “scaremongering.” Their alert, he wrote  in an e-mailed statement to Nature, “is riddled with out of date inaccuracies and should not be taken seriously.”

But Judith Bond, the president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, says that her group continues to be deeply concerned not only about the particulars of the bill but about the precedent it would set if enacted.

“[Government] prohibiting the use of a research model is a frightening concept,” said Bond, who is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the medical school at Pennsylvania State University in Hershey.  “Animal models are so critical to the biomedical enterprise and to science in general.”



  1. Report this comment

    Dario Ringach said:

    The Bill is not about science nor cost savings. It is not about science because it is not possible to predict if any one species may be required in the future. It is not about savings because we have established it does not yield any.

    What is the Bill truly about?

    It is about animal rights. And yet, it does not offer any argument as to why the proposed species ought to be banned from research while other species do not. What animal rights activists are hoping for is a slippery slope.

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