Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Leaving the lab. NIH plans to phase out much of its research on chimpanzees.


NIH Will Retire Most Research Chimps, End Many Projects

As expected, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that the agency plans to retire all but 50 of its 360 research chimpanzees and phase out much of the research that it supports on these animals.

NIH Director Francis Collins, who called the decision a milestone, explained that "chimpanzees are our closest relatives" and "they deserve special respect." New scientific advances "have made it possible to replace experiments done in the past on chimps with other strategies, making it now possible to greatly reduce our support for research on these special animals."

The Humane Society of the United States, which supports phasing out all invasive research on chimpanzees, welcomed the decision. "This is an historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories—some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years," said society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle in a statement.

Today's decision stems from an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report in December 2011 that found that most research on chimps is unnecessary. The report said projects should continue only if they would advance public health; the work could not be done in humans or another animal model; and the chimpanzees were kept in an ethologically appropriate environment. Collins immediately accepted the recommendations, put a hold on new chimpanzee research grants, and asked a working group of his Council of Councils to advise him on how to carry out IOM's recommendations.

The working group concluded in January 2013 that many of NIH's 30 projects involving chimpanzee research or support should end. That includes six of nine invasive biomedical research projects, leaving only three studies involving immunology and infectious agents such as hepatitis C. Eight of 13 genomics and behavioral projects that don't involve invasive studies were approved to continue. The report also recommended that NIH maintain a colony of up to 50 animals to meet research future needs. And it agreed that research chimpanzees must be kept in appropriate conditions, such as in groups of at least seven animals, in large outdoor spaces, and with room to climb.

The agency received more than 12,500 comments by late March on the working group's 28 recommendations. One that NIH is setting aside is that the animals have at least 93 square meters of primary living space per chimpanzee. (Current guidelines require a minimum cage size of about 2 square meters.) "There's not enough data" supporting that recommendation, Collins said, and "obviously this has implications in terms of the cost of maintaining chimpanzees." NIH plans to continue reviewing the scientific evidence for how much space chimpanzees need.

During a teleconference with reporters today, NIH officials declined to identify the 22 research grants reviewed by the working group, but said that they have begun notifying principal investigators how their projects will be affected. Projects that don't meet the IOM criteria will "wind down in a way that preserves the research," Collins said.

NIH officials said that 310 research chimpanzees will move to the national sanctuary at Chimp Haven, in Keithville, Louisiana, or other sanctuaries over the next few years. (About 100 have recently moved or are slated to be transferred later this year from New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana.) NIH is also working with Congress to lift a $30 million cap imposed in 2000 in spending on the national sanctuary that the agency will reach in the next few months.

NIH officials said that they will likely support a single colony of 50 animals for future research, but have not decided which animals to include and where it will be located. In accordance with the working group's recommendation, NIH will not breed the animals, but will revisit that policy in 5 years.

Lisa Newbern, chief of public affairs for at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, says that her center has not yet learned the fate of its five NIH-supported behavioral research projects involving chimps, some funded to 2016. Although her center is worried that the new housing standards could cost tens of millions of dollars, NIH's decision to hold off on the 93 square meters requirement "eases one of our concerns."

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute, which conducts biomedical research using chimpanzees, issued a statement saying is "disappointed in most of the responses" NIH made to the working group's recommendations. The institute calls the 50-animal colony "an arbitrarily chosen number" that will limit the pace of research on hepatitis, immunotherapies, and diseases affecting chimpanzees in the wild.

Researchers will also need to comply with a new rule proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) this month that changes the status of captive chimpanzees from "threatened" to "endangered." Scientists will now need a permit to study chimpanzees, and if the research does not benefit the species directly, they must do something to enhance its survival, for example, by making a donation to a chimp conservation fund.

Kathy Hudson, NIH deputy director of science, outreach, and policy, noted that the FWS rule won't be final for about a year. "We're very confident that we'll be able to find an arrangement in which important biomedical research under the new rules will be permitted," she said.