Petition calls for US government to stop testing on chimps

Posted on March 6, 2011

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Kitty was used as a breeder in Alamogordo (formerly the Coulston Foundation), in 1997 she was sent to a sanctuary.

The debate about chimpanzees being used for medical research reached boiling point this week, as campaigners in the United States filed a legal petition.

The row is over the fate of 14 chimpanzees who were allegedly moved illegally from a colony of 186 “research” chimpanzees that live in Alamogordo Primate Facility – AFP, (formerly the Coulston Foundation) in New Mexico to a controversial laboratory in Texas for use in experiments.

All of the apes and hundreds of other non human primates at Alamogordo are owned by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), a medical research organisation which is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Service.

Scientific research has not been carried out on non human primates at Alamogordo since the late 1990s, but when NIH announced it intended to transfer 14 chimps for research at Texas Biomedical Research Institute (formerly the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research), all hell broke loose.

The petition has been signed by 15 scientists who say the 14 chimpanzees should be returned immediately to their former home in New Mexico. Dallas physician and spokesman for the nonprofit organisation, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) John Pippin, whose members have signed the petition said: “Moving the chimpanzees was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of agency discretion, and in violation of the Federal Administrative Procedure Act.

“The 14 chimpanzees at Texas Biomed are perilously near the hot zone where bioterrorism agents are studied. Using hepatitis C-infected chimpanzees for biodefense work or other experiments will not be productive. Decades of experiments have shown that chimpanzees are poor models for human disease research, and these amazingly intelligent animals deserve a peaceful retirement.”

The four female and 10 male chimpanzees were transferred to the Texas Biomed, which supports the use of primates for studies involving bioterrorism agents and other deadly pathogens, including the Ebola virus and anthrax. A few months after the 14 were transferred, the 186 chimpanzees remaining at the non-research facility in New Mexico were granted a reprieve from transfer and further experimentation. This was after the NIH agreed to wait for the findings of the independent Institute of Medicine, which is carrying out an in-depth analysis to reassess the scientific need for the continued use of chimpanzees to accelerate biomedical discoveries.

Many of the 14 chimpanzees are elderly and have been used repeatedly for invasive procedures. Medical records reveal that 29-year-old Rosie was “chemically immobilised” 99 times by researchers. Thirty-year-old Cammy was intravenously given human feces containing hepatitis A virus. She was also given the human Norwalk virus, a gastrointestinal virus causing vomiting and diarrhoea in people, via stomach tube.

Last year US Congress began considering a bill – the Great Ape Protection Act – that would ban this type of biomedical research. It has the backing of politicians, primatologist Jane Goodall and the Humane Society. The US is the only developed nation that still carries out experiments on chimpanzees. The practice is banned here in the UK.

The Great Ape Protection Act is gathering support, celebrities including ‘Bones’ actress Emily Deschanel and Hollywood actor Wood Harrelson, who is working alongside People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have also added their voice to calls for the NIH to return the chimps. In January, Harrelson wrote: “Will you please return the 14 chimpanzees … to these simple pleasures and allow them to continue the rehabilitation that they have more than earned?”

Chimpanzees in captivity have an average life span of 30 years, but can live up to 50 years. In the past chimps were bred for research facilities, but now there is a ban on breeding at all US research facilities and it has meant the number of captive apes has fallen, and those available for experimental research could die out within several decades. Importing chimpanzees into the US is also illegal.

But some researchers insist the experiments are vital, and vigorously defend lab studies on animals such as mice and chimpanzees to advance medicine. Director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center, John VandeBerg, which requested the Alamogordo chimps, told the newspaper, Washington Post: “We’ve made a lot of progress in research on hepatitis using chimpanzees.”

He said the experiments led to the development of “many drugs for treating both hepatitis B and C.” VandeBerg acknowledged that the European Union, Japan, Australia and other developed nations no longer use chimpanzees for medical experiments.

“Scientists in Europe come here to do their research on chimpanzees. Their societies made a decision that was driven by animal rights advocates. But they need chimpanzees just as badly as we do. In order to avoid animal rights campaigns against them, their governments decided not to use chimpanzees.”

But other experts say chimpanzees are poor models for cancer and AIDS research, and their usefulness for hepatitis research is in dispute.

The chimps infected with hepatitis, have undergone two medical examinations where blood was drawn to gauge the levels of the virus, and two needle biopsies extracted tissue from their livers for examination.

VandeBerg added: “The animal rights people make it seem like it’s a horrible thing to do. It’s a very simple clinical procedure. It’s not painful.”

According to the newspaper it’s not quite so clear-cut. A veterinarian who reviewed Rosie’s medical record, Mel Richardson,  obtained from NIH following a Freedom of Information Act (FoI) request, found as early as age 8, she suffered from seizures after being placed under anaesthesia. Rosie continued to suffer seizures under anesthesia for 11 years. Ms Richardson said hercurrent condition is “at-risk, due to her extreme morbid obesity.” and recommended she be returned to New Mexico .

Government inspection reports show that Texas Biomed has a poor record of animal care, including recent incidents involving primates escaping from their enclosures. The biosafety level 4 laboratory, which conducts research on some of the world’s most deadly pathogens, also has serious security shortfalls, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

The NIH Office of Extramural Research has issued this statement:

The transfer of the chimps from Alamogordo Primate Facility (APF) to Southwest had been in the planning stages since early 2009 and all APF chimps were staged as to when they would move. These 14 were moved as part of the first planned stage. Other APF chimps were to be moved after remodeling of the Southwest facility was further along.

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