Zero. That’s the number of labs that have applied for a permit to conduct invasive research on chimpanzees in the United States, as required by a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) rule. The number suggests that all biomedical research on chimps has stopped—or is about to stop—and it’s unclear whether the work will ever start up again.
“This is the beginning of the end of invasive chimpanzee research,” says Stephen Ross, the director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, who pushed for the FWS rule. “Scientists have seen the writing on the wall.”
Biomedical research on chimpanzees has been waning since 2013, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it would phase out most government-funded chimp research and retire the majority of its research chimps to sanctuaries. The most recent blow came in June, when FWS stated that all U.S. chimpanzees—including the more than 700 chimps used in research—would be classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Any labs that wished to continue invasive work on these animals would need to apply for an ESA permit, and permits would only be allowed for work that enhances the survival of the species and benefits chimpanzees in the wild.
The FWS move was certain to have “a chilling impact” on biomedical research, warned John VandeBerg, the former director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC) in San Antonio, Texas, at the time. And so it has. According to FWS, not a single lab has applied for an ESA permit. And because the agency needs 90 days or more to review permit requests, no labs will have one by the time the rule goes into effect on 14 September. That means any ongoing projects must stop on that date.
Robert Lanford, the current director of SNPRC, says no research is currently being done on the center’s 129 chimpanzees, and that his organization is not applying for any permits at this time. The most recent project—a test of antiviral drugs against hepatitis B—was ended early to avoid running into the 14 September deadline, he says. “If we weren’t required to go through all of these processes, we’d still have several ongoing projects.” He notes that the center has made its animals available to scientists who study everything from AIDS to cutting-edge antibody research. “There were still critical experiments being done.”
Lanford says he’s not surprised that other labs also have not applied for permits. Any applications, he says, are likely to attract the attention of animal advocates, and it’s not clear whether FWS would grant the permit. “Public opinion is currently heavily influencing this process,” he says. “Nobody wants to be the first test case.”
The FWS ruling may also affect labs that conduct only behavioral research on chimpanzees. Typically, behavioral research doesn’t require a permit, says FWS spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman. But the requirement could kick in if the research involves activities that constitute a “take,” which means actions that harm, stress, harass or noticeably change the animal’s behavior. Even snipping hair and drawing blood could be considered take in some circumstances. Kauffman says that, to be safe, any researcher working on a chimpanzee should consult with USFWS before continuing their project.
The Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, which houses 57 chimpanzees for behavioral research, says it is trying to figure out whether it needs permits for any of its work. “We have not applied for a permit … because we are still evaluating how that research will fit within the ruling,” says Yerkes spokeswoman Lisa Newbern.
NIH says it is not currently funding any biomedical or behavioral research involving chimpanzees. “For any future biomedical research using chimpanzees, NIH will recommend to the NIH-funded investigator that he/she consult with [FWS],” the agency stated in an email.
Lanford admits that chimpanzee research is winding down in the United States, but he believes it will continue in some capacity. “We will eventually negotiate a path to getting permits for highly innovative projects where there is no other animal model available,” he says. “The chimpanzee is still an extraordinarily important model for medical research—the question is, will we choose to use them or not?”
In the meantime, Lanford says SNPRC’s 129 chimpanzees are in the best place possible, even if they’re not being used for research—and may never be used again. “We have a large staff of veterinarians who are world’s experts on these animals and an emergency room clinic with humanlike medical care,” he says. “We believe that our facility provides the greatest quality of care these animals will get anywhere.” He also notes that NIH has said it plans to maintain a colony of 50 chimps to meet future research needs, and that his center could meet that need. “I don’t foresee a situation where we would send these animals to a sanctuary.”
That’s a shame, says Ross of the Lincoln Park Zoo, who believes sanctuaries are not only better for these animals—but better for research. Ross studies chimp cognition at his zoo using a touchscreen that the animals can interact with whenever they feel like, and he says he doesn’t see why similar experiments couldn’t be conducted in sanctuaries. “They would be in a place where the primary consideration is their care, and we could work with them in a much more open environment,” he says. “We still have a lot to learn from them.”