Now there’s only one country left in the entire world where it’s legal to perform invasive tests on chimpanzees.
In the recent years, the only two countries in the world who legally used great apes for invasive scientific research were the United States and Gabon, a country in Central Africa. But thanks to some wonderful news announced by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) last Wednesday (November 18), invasive research on chimpanzees will no longer be permitted in the United States.
(Invasive research includes any type of biomedical testing where the chimp is injected or cut into. However, the recent decision shouldn’t affect behavioral and cognitive research on chimps.)
In 2013, the NIH made a controversial decision to retire all but 50 of its research chimpanzees to animal sanctuaries. However, in the two and a half years following that decision, there has barely even been any interest in using the chimps for research, and no proposals have moved forward, according to Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the NIH, during a news briefing with reporters. Consequently, the institute decided to retire the remaining 50 animals, effectively putting an end to biomedical chimp research.
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In an interview with Science, Collins said, “I think it is the natural next step in what has been a process over the last 5 years, really, of deep thinking about the appropriateness of research on our closest relatives, the chimpanzees.”
An announcement in June thickened the plot. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed research chimpanzees as “endangered,” matching their status to that of the other chimps living in the wild. Scientists would thus be required to obtain a permit in order to use any of the captive chimps for invasive research. Additionally, the researchers would have to show that their studies would benefit chimpanzees in the wild in some way.
Due to the CHIMP Act of 2000, all federally-owned chimps must be retired in a chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana called Chimp Haven. The NIH plans to send over 300 more chimps there, including the 50 who have finally been given their freedom back. However, the process could take years, and the chimps will be kept in three federal facilities in the meantime.
A lot of care and effort will be put into the process to ensure the chimps live happily for the remainder of their lives. In fact, the NIH plans to move chimps together based on their family and social groups, also taking age and health into consideration.
“When in 2013 they announced they would release the majority of chimps, some people focused on the 50 that would be left behind,” Kathleen Conlee, the vice president for animal research at the Humane Society of the United States, told the New York Times. “And I said, ‘Don’t worry, someday we will get them protected.’ And today, we did.”
While most people are elated that endangered lab chimps will be free from invasive research, Peter Walsh and his team of researchers at the University of Cambridge aren’t as thrilled. He says it will be difficult for his team to test an Ebola vaccine for wild chimps, and his group had planned to do further trials before deploying the vaccine in Africa. Most people associate the Ebola virus with humans, but tragically, conservationists report that Ebola has wiped out a third of the world’s chimpanzee and gorilla populations since the 1990s.
However, Dr. Collins is confident that biomedical research is moving past the point where invasive research on chimps is necessary to yield results. “We find no evidence that there is a need to continue to do research of an invasive sort on chimpanzees, not now and not going into the future,” he said.
Now, it’s time to let the research chimps enjoy the rest of their days in peace.