The Texas Biomedical Research Institute, which owns 91 chimps that are supported by NIH funds, said it was “disappointed” by today’s announcement and felt that this move would slow research. “As the number of chimpanzees eligible for research decreases below 50 as a result of death from natural causes, the pace of research will be slowed even more, and human and chimpanzee lives will be lost unnecessarily due to delays in bringing new drugs and vaccines to market,” it said in a statement.
Although the NIH accepted most of the recommendations from its panel, it did not accept the recommendation that chimpanzees each be housed in spaces up to 1,000 square feet (93 square meters). James Anderson, NIH deputy director for program coordination, planning, and strategic initiatives, says there is currently “scant” science that suggests that those space recommendations are needed in order to ensure chimps have normal behavior, moreover, creating spaces that size would be costly. “What we’re going to do is take a step back and review all the published literature.” Current guidelines for the care for animals in research call for about 25 square feet (2.3 square meters) for each animal, but current cages are closer to the 1,000-square-foot size, Anderson says.
Today’s NIH decision comes on the heels of a proposed rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would place all chimps—including those in captivity—under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Currently, only chimps in the wild are classified as “endangered” whereas those in captivity are “threatened.” If the FWS rule is enacted as proposed, that would mean permits would be required to do research on the chimps, and they would only be awarded in instances where research benefits the animals directly. “Research to benefit human beings would not be considered research to benefit chimpanzees,” says Kathy Hudson, NIH deputy director of science, outreach and policy. Still, she says that the NIH is confident it will be able to make arrangements to allow the agency to continue research essential for human public health.
The NIH owns or supports the maintenance of 670 chimpanzees, but only 451 (including those it funds at the Texas facility) are available for research. The agency expects approximately 310 to be designated for retirement to the federal sanctuary system.