The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has decided to all but eliminate the use of chimpanzees in biomedical or behavioral studies. This decision follows the release of a new report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, led by committee chair Jeffrey Kahn of Johns Hopkins.
Chimpanzees not only share 98% of our genes, but they also display many of the behaviors and cognitive abilities that we once thought set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Chimps solve problems, display altruism, and feel pain and sorrow. For this reason, the NIH came up with the following strict guidelines limiting the usage of chimpanzees in research.
- The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health.
- There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects.
- The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.
Very few studies meet these criteria. For example, one possibility is for the development of a vaccine against the hepatitic C virus (HCV). Only chimps and humans are susceptible to HCV, which infects 17,000 Americans per year, many of whom will require liver transplants. Even so, the committee was split on allowing that usage of chimps in HCV studies.
Laboratories already using chimpanzees will not be immediately cut off from NIH funding. Instead, they will be encouraged to find other methods of continuing their studies. As there were only 53 chimpanzee projects funded by the NIH last year (out of more than 94,000 total study projects), it should be possible to completely eliminate the usage of research chimps within a few years.