Health Agency Moves to Retire Most Chimps Used for Research

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The majority of the more than 360 chimpanzees owned or supported by the National Institutes of Health that are now at research facilities should be permanently retired from research and moved to sanctuaries, and planning for the move should start immediately, a report from an N.I.H. council recommended Tuesday.

The report, approved by the N.I.H. Council of Councils, is the latest step in a process that began more than two years ago when the agency began to review its use of chimpanzees in research. Its recommendations will be open to public comment for 60 days, and in late March, Dr. Francis S. Collins, the N.I.H. director, will decide whether to put them into effect. He has already accepted early guidelines that propose significant reductions in the use of chimpanzees in behavioral and biomedical research.

The report does not urge a ban on research, but says that in the future, only a small colony of about 50 chimps should be kept for the possibility of research, which would have to be approved by an independent committee that would include representation from the public. The report also proposes standards for the social and physical welfare of the animals, including requirements that they live in groups of at least seven, have a minimum of 1,000 square feet per chimp, room to climb and opportunities to forage for food.

The process that led to the recommendations began in December 2010, when the agency decided to rethink its use of chimps in medical experiments and asked for a report from the Institute of Medicine. That group concluded that most current research on chimpanzees was not necessary and that chimps should be used only when public health was on the line, no other animals were appropriate and ethical experiments on humans were not possible.

Dr. Collins accepted the report's recommendations, suspended new grants for medical research on chimpanzees and sought further guidance on how to implement the changes. For that he turned to the N.I.H. Council of Councils, which set up the working group, which delivered its report on Tuesday.

The report approved Tuesday recommends canceling six of nine current invasive biomedical research projects (but does not specify what those projects are) and a number of other projects that place less of a burden on the animals. And it offers a plan for the independent committee to evaluate future research proposals, based on the guidelines proposed by the Institute of Medicine, which emphasized that human health must be at issue for chimps to be used in research and that there must be no other way to do the work.

Those guidelines also included socially and physically appropriate living conditions, which the current report is at pains to define.

Tuesday's recommendations come in the midst of efforts on several fronts to stop experimentation on chimpanzees. A bill to stop experiments on all great apes did not pass in the last Congress, but proponents hope to reintroduce it. The Fish and Wildlife Service is also expected to issue a decision on whether captive chimps should be considered endangered, as wild chimps are.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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