In June American Physiological Society President Joey Granger sent letters asking Members of Congress to oppose the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (GAPACSA). The bill, known as H.R. 1513 in the House of Representatives and S. 810 in the Senate, would institute a broad ban on “invasive” research involving non-human hominids or gibbons. The bill uses such a broad definition of “invasive” research that animals could not be removed from their social group for research, and even collecting blood tissue outside of a veterinary check-up would be prohibited. The only affected species customarily used in biomedical research is the chimpanzee, though others may be involved in research at zoos.
Granger emphasized in his letter the multiple layers of oversight that currently protect research animals—especially chimpanzees—and outlined the importance of the research at risk. The letter went on to disprove the “cost saving” claims of the bill and to ask Congress to postpone action until an Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel currently in the process of evaluating the scientific value of chimpanzee research has released its findings.
Supporters of GAPACSA claim that retiring chimpanzees to sanctuaries would save the government money, but data released by NIH show that the cost per day of maintaining a chimp at the Chimp Haven Sanctuary for animals no longer needed in research is equivalent to the average cost of maintaining them in government research facilities.
Meanwhile, the IOM has assembled a blue ribbon panel that will undertake “an in-depth analysis of the current and future need for chimpanzee use in biomedical research.” Its findings are expected by the end of 2011.
Chimpanzee research has been crucial to a number of historical breakthroughs, including vaccines for hepatitis A and B as well as the development of monoclonal antibodies. In a recent editorial, Nature asserted that the “historical value of the chimpanzee as a disease model is indisputable.” Today, chimps are the only model for chronic hepatitis C, a leading cause of liver cancer. Additionally, they are valuable for studies aimed at protecting wild apes: An Ebola vaccine study conducted in chimps earlier this year has already led to the use of that vaccine in wild gorillas. This is a significant breakthrough since Ebola has already reduced wild gorilla populations by one third.