On Nov. 16, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that his agency will end the last vestiges of federally supported chimpanzee experimentation. The move is years in the making, and we applaud NIH director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., for making this scientifically sound and ethically correct decision.
Dr. Collins also announced that NIH funding for chimpanzees not owned by the agency will end. The last 50 chimpanzees kept in reserve will be retired to sanctuary, along with the 310 previously retired from experimentation by NIH.
In 2013, after a prolonged effort by the Physicians Committee and other groups, NIH announced that it would retire from experimentation more than 85 percent of the chimpanzees it owned, leaving 50 individuals as a reserve colony for possible future use. At that time, we welcomed the decision but continued to urge NIH to retire all chimpanzees. Today, the agency has announced that it will do just that.
“It is time to acknowledge that there is no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available for invasive biomedical research,” Dr. Collins wrote to NIH administrators.
As a physician who was invited to testify before the 2011 Institute of Medicine panel that examined the necessity of chimpanzee experimentation, I’m elated that chimpanzees, some of whom have spent decades in research facilities, will no longer be subject to NIH-funded invasive experimentation. Scarce government research funding should now be redirected to human-relevant methods including organ-on-a-chip technology, stem cells, and population studies.
The announcement by Dr. Collins followed another historic announcement in June 2015 in which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service declared that it was extending endangered species protections to all chimpanzees, including those in research facilities. In order for any chimpanzee experiments to be conducted, the restrictive U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service exemption requirements must be met, and the experiments must be conducted without NIH funding.
As a practical matter, the actions by NIH and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will relegate the experimental use of our closest genetic relatives to the historical dust bin, where it belongs.
The Institute of Medicine panel I testified before could not find a single area of disease research for which chimpanzees are essential. Chimpanzees have repeatedly proven to be poor models for many areas of human disease research, such as HIV, malaria, and other infectious diseases, neuroscience research, and cancer.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.