Research monkeys

Richard T. Nowitz/Science Source

2020 U.S. spending bill restricts some animal research, pushes for lab animal retirement

Federal research agencies will be under increased pressure to reduce their use of monkeys, dogs, and cats when President Donald Trump signs the final 2020 U.S. spending bill this week. Language pushed by animal advocacy groups will require the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore alternatives to the use of nonhuman primates, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to come up with a detailed plan for the reduction and retirement of its monkeys, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to reduce or eliminate its use of cats, dogs, and monkeys within the next 5 years.

“This is the first time in history, to our knowledge, that Congress has set hard deadlines for the elimination and reduction of experiments on dogs, cats, and primates,” says Justin Goodman, vice president of the White Coat Waste Project, a Washington, D.C.–based group that worked with lawmakers to introduce the language. “The science has been there, the public sentiment has been there, and now there’s the political will to make these things happen.”

Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research in Washington, D.C., is concerned, however. “There is some language that could set a dangerous precedent for deciding how research in the U.S. should be conducted in the future,” he says. “This kind of language should raise serious questions and concerns about the role Congress plays in research.”

The language targeting NIH that is attached to the final spending bill is substantially different from language that was approved earlier by the House of Representatives. In May, the House language expressed concern that NIH—which owns more than 7000 monkeys—had increased its use of these animals in “research involving pain and distress” by nearly 50% since 2014. The House report asked for a detailed strategy for reducing the number of monkeys the agency owns, as well as a plan to retire them to sanctuaries.

In contrast, the language in the final spending bill negotiated by House and Senate lawmakers, is more muted. It touts the importance of monkeys in biomedical research and does not call on the agency to retire any of its animals. But it does request a report to Congress on its efforts to use fewer monkeys and replace them with alternatives.

The final spending bill asks more of FDA. The agency, which owned 361 monkeys in 2017, must deliver a report to Congress in 2020 that outlines a strategy and timeline for reducing the number of nonhuman primates it owns and replacing them with alternatives. “The report should also detail plans for the relocation of nonhuman primates no longer needed in FDA research to appropriate sanctuaries,” a report accompanying the bill states. The language is the same as that endorsed by the House earlier this year. A White Coat Waste campaign in 2017 led FDA to end nicotine addiction studies in squirrel monkeys the following year and transfer the animals to a sanctuary. At the time, the agency also announced an independent investigation of its animal research programs and more oversight of all of its animal research activities.

VA must make the most sweeping changes to its animal research activities. The spending bill effectively defunds any research on monkeys, cats, and dogs unless it is explicitly approved by the head of the agency. (VA conducted studies on more than 100 dogs, 20 cats, and 100 monkeys in 2017.) Even then, the research can take place only if it can’t be done on other animals, and only if it’s “directly related to an illness or an injury that is combat-related.” The head of the VA must also submit a report to Congress when any new project on these animals is authorized, detailing the nature and justification for the research.

The language is “unprecedented,” Goodman says. “Never has Congress demanded the opportunity to weigh in on a scientific project before it commences.”

It’s “really, really concerning,” says Cindy Buckmaster, chair of the board of directors of Americans for Medical Progress, a Washington, D.C.–based group that promotes the need for animals in labs. “How is Congress going to evaluate these studies? It seems really misinformed and irresponsible.”

VA also must formalize a plan to “eliminate or reduce the research conducted using canines, felines, or nonhuman primates” within the next 5 years. White Coat Waste has targeted the agency in the past, prompting a formal review of its dog research in 2018.

In other provisions, the spending bill compels the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to immediately restore tens of thousands of complete inspection reports of animal facilities. In 2017, the agency removed public access to these reports, which catalog whether research and other animals are being treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act. USDA restored some of the reports after public and political outcry, but often in a heavily redacted form. The spending bill requires that all reports be made public within 60 days “in their entirety without redactions except signatures” and that all future reports meet the same criteria.

The Washington, D.C.–based Humane Society of the United States pushed for that language, along with several other animal welfare groups. “The lives of animals in puppy mills, research facilities, roadside zoos, and other entities hang in the balance every day,” says Humane Society Legislative Fund President Sara Amundson. “Congress heard that urgency and told USDA in no uncertain terms to promptly restore full transparency regarding federal animal welfare violations.”

Buckmaster says she’s pleased with the USDA language as well. “Most of us in the research community were unhappy when the reports went down,” she says. “We want this level of transparency. People should be held accountable for doing their work well.”

None of the federal agencies would comment on pending legislation or did not provide comment by press time.

Goodman says White Coat Waste will now focus its attention on getting Congress to pass the “After Act,” which would compel every federal agency to have a retirement plan in place for its research animals. “We’re going to continue to hold these agencies accountable for what they do with their lab animals.”

Bailey worries about the precedent some of the language sets about the role Congress plays in research. “Today, it is animals in biomedical research; tomorrow, it may be climate science, tobacco research, stem cell research, occupational health research, or even epidemiology,” he says. “Eventually that research will be more likely to move to other countries, which isn’t good for American competitiveness, animal welfare, or the public’s health.”

Buckmaster says most of the people she knows in the biomedical community are completely unaware of the spending bill’s language regarding animal research. “We need to be paying more attention to this stuff, and we need to speak up when necessary,” she says. The public should be paying more attention, too, she says. “We all love animals,” Buckmaster says. “But we have to be realistic, or we’ll make decisions that harm people and animals.”