The US National Institutes of Health will wind up its programme of medical research upon chimpanzees, announcing that 50 of its remaining great apes will be sent to sanctuaries.
In an e-mail to agency administrators on Nov 16, NIH director Francis Collins said there was “no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available for invasive biomedical research”, according to Nature. The NIH will also phase out its support for chimps that it maintains for research but does not keep, meaning that around 360 chimps will be relocated.
The 50 transferred chimps will be kept in “ethologically appropriate” settings, involving them in large, complex social groups with independent oversight. The decision, long campaigned for by animal welfare advocates, is an apparent u-turn from the NIH’s earlier position where it said it would keep the 50 chimps in its laboratories. An initial group of 20 chimps at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute will be sent to Chimp Haven, a national ape sanctuary.
“We have moved away from a time where we would consider chimps essential to medical research,” Collins said. He added it will take several years to relocate the chimps, however. Collins has been the target of a vigorous campaign by animal welfare activists, with PETA sending letters to his neighbours criticising chimp research.
The NIH has steadily backed away from the use of chimps for medical experiments since 2010, when it commissioned the Institute of Medicine to study whether the experiments were needed. The review found that “while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in past research, most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.” However, antibody therapies, genome research and non-invasive research into behavioural and social traits may still require chimps, the review added.
In 2012 around 100 chimps were retired from research facilities to Chimp Haven but hundreds of chimps, including those privately held, remain in captivity. In June, the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided to list chimpanzees as endangered, which restricts most invasive research on the animals. There have also been recent court cases launched in the US to grant chimps legal rights, similar to humans.
“This is a historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories. Some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. “It is crucial now to ensure that the release of hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuary becomes a reality, and we look forward to working with NIH and the sanctuary community to make that happen.” – Guardian News & Media/Oliver Milman