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.