The National Institutes of Health has taken a big step toward the humane treatment of animals. Last week, a committee of scientists recommended that the use of chimpanzees in federally funded research be halted.
In 2011 the NIH's Institute of Medicine declared that most biomedical research use of chimpanzees, which have close genetic proximity to humans, was unnecessary. At that point the agency called for further study and curtailed new grants on work that would have involved chimpanzees.
On Jan. 22 the institute's Council of Councils Working Group made its recommendations, which are likely to lead to a final decision by April. High-speed computer simulation and other technology, it said, have made what many consider a morally dubious practice irrelevant.
The council also urged that all but 50 of the 451 chimps funded by the federal government be retired from laboratories and sent to an animal sanctuary. The remaining 50 would be kept in better, more spacious enclosures for possible research only if experiments on them were the sole way to study a human health threat.
The recommendations are a victory for animal rights advocates and others who have protested what they consider the barbaric treatment of chimpanzees in the name of science. The fact that some chimps are still available for experiments makes it a less-than-complete triumph, however.
Although tests on chimpanzees have helped scientists develop the hepatitis A and B vaccines, understand the role played by salt in high blood pressure and devise antibodies for the treatment of cancers, there are alternative ways of gaining such knowledge.
Let's hope the NIH follows the advice of its council and accepts this reality.