NIH to End All Chimpanzee Research

“All NIH-owned chimpanzees that reside outside of the Federal Sanctuary System.…are now eligible for retirement,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement released November 18, 2015. The announcement was made soon after Nature disclosed in an online article that Collins had informed NIH staff of this decision two days earlier.

“It is time to acknowledge that there is no further justification for the 50 chimpanzees to continue to be kept available,” Collins said in an email to NIH senior staff.

The decision was the culmination of a process set in motion in December, 2010 when Collins asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to assess the continued scientific need for chimpanzees in NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research. In December, 2011, an IOM study panel announced that it had concluded that chimpanzees were no longer necessary for most current human biomedical research. The panel also set forth new ethical criteria for NIH should apply to future chimpanzee research. Collins accepted the report in principle and temporarily halted the approval process for new research involving chimpanzees. He also asked NIH’s Council of Councils to commission a working group to review current research in light of the IOM’s new criteria and recommend how NIH should implement the report’s findings.

One of the IOM criteria was that research with NIH-owned chimpanzees must be necessary to advance public health. This narrow focus on NIH’s mission precluded allowing researchers with other funding to conduct studies that might advance the health of chimpanzees, i.e., through the development of vaccines to protect wild chimpanzees against infectious disease such as Ebola.

The NIH working group on the IOM report issued draft recommendations in January, 2013. A period of public comment followed, and in June, 2013, Collins announced that NIH would retain a colony of 50 chimpanzees for future biomedical research. In addition, all NIH-owned chimpanzees were to be provided with an “ethologically appropriate environment” as defined by the working group.

Some chimpanzees were immediately sent to Chimp Haven, the federally-chartered sanctuary for animals no longer needed for research. Another 300 were to be temporarily retired in place until the animals to be sent the research colony were identified. Additional animals would be sent to Chimp Haven on a space-available basis. NIH also established a Chimpanzee Research Use Panel to review research proposals for compliance with the new standards. It then secured legislation to lift a $30 million spending cap on the total funding it was able to provide for the care of retired chimpanzees at Chimp Haven.

Even as NIH was moving to implement the IOM report, there was a concurrent development with even greater potential to disrupt research with chimpanzees. In March 2010, a coalition of animal rights and animal protection organizations petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS) to classify captive chimpanzees as an endangered species. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), any kind of biomedical research with an endangered species that is not specifically intended to promote the survival of that species requires going through a complicated permitting process. This requirement applies even to simple procedures such as temporary restraint or a blood draw. In 1990, wild chimpanzees were placed on the endangered species list. However, captive chimpanzees were designated as threatened because they were seen as a promising species for HIV/AIDS research. The threatened designation is less restrictive, and does not include the requirement to seek an F&WS permit before conducting research with them.

In response to the petition, F&WS conducted a “status review” of captive chimpanzees in late 2011. In June 2013—shortly after NIH announced its plans to implement the IOM recommendations on chimpanzee research—F&WS issued a proposal to re-classify captive chimpanzees as endangered. Despite the recommendation of the APS and other research organizations not to make the change, the endangered designation was applied to captive chimpanzees in June 2015. This step set up a Catch-22: NIH would not allow chimpanzee-focused research with its animals, and F&WS would not allow human-focused research without a special permit.

In his November 18, 2015 announcement, Collins said that since June 2013 NIH had “phased out all previously active biomedical research protocols using chimpanzees that did not meet the IOM principles and criteria, and no new biomedical research projects have been approved.” (In his earlier email to NIH administrators, Collins indicated that one application had been submitted but later withdrawn.)

Collins also said that the F&WS had not received any requests for research permits under the ESA since June when captive chimpanzees were designated as endangered. Consequently, he had “reassessed the need to maintain chimpanzees for biomedical research and decided that effective immediately, NIH will no longer maintain a colony of 50 chimpanzees for future research.” He indicated that “[r]elocation of the chimpanzees to the Federal Sanctuary System will be conducted as space is available and on a timescale that will allow for optimal transition of each individual chimpanzee with careful consideration of their welfare, including their health and social grouping.”

The decision was “specific to chimpanzees,” according to the announcement: “Research with other non-human primates will continue to be valued, supported, and conducted by the NIH.”

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