Great ape protection act

chimpanzee HamI received the following email today from Judith S. Bond, President of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB):

Dear Colleague,

We need your help to counter a serious threat to the humane use of animals in research. The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (S 810), which would prohibit the use of chimpanzees in medical research, may be voted on in the Senate this week (it was approved by a Senate committee in July)! Passage of this bill could have devastating consequences for ongoing research into human diseases such as hepatitis C, as well as studies benefiting the great apes themselves. Even if you do not work with great apes, you should be concerned about this bill because it would end research deemed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to be ethically sound and scientifically important and could pave the way for legislation to ban research with other species

Those who oppose the use of animals in research are making an aggressive effort to get this bill passed before Congress goes home for the year. We must let them know that chimpanzees are important animal models for research. Please take action now by going to to send an email to your Senators urging them to oppose the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act.

You can find the text of this bill on this webpage (the pdf link at the top of the page provides the most readable version of the bill). Great apes include the chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, orangutan, and gibbon. Invasive research is any research that may cause death, injury, pain, distress, fear, or trauma.

According to the text of the bill, the chimpanzee is the only great ape used for invasive research in the United States, where there are approximately 1000 housed in laboratories.

The bill cites the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council report entitled “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity” which concluded that most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.  It states that research on hepatitis C antiviral drugs, respiratory syncytial virus, future monoclonal antibody therapies, or a therapeutic hepatitis C virus vaccine, does not require chimpanzees, and that ‘the use of a combination of non-chimpanzee methods for the development of monoclonal antibody therapies may make research on the chimpanzee largely unnecessary; and non-chimpanzee models, if further improved, may reduce or obviate the need for the continued use of the chimpanzee for prophylactic hepatitis C vaccine research.’

Presumably the authors of the bill refer in part to work directed on developing a mouse model for HCV infection. However, as indicated by the bill’s language, it is not yet clear if these models will supplant the chimpanzee for HCV research.

The purpose of this act is to phase out invasive research on great apes and the use of Federal funding of that research, both in and outside of the United States. All existing chimpanzee protocols must be terminated within three years of passing of the bill, and once the bill has been passed, no new chimpanzee experiments may be started.

There is an escape clause – if, after three years have passed, it is determined that a new disease requires research on chimpanzees, the Great Ape Task Force will be created to evaluate that need.

If this act had been passed in the 1950s, it might not have been possible to develop poliovirus vaccines. While transgenic mice recapitulate much of poliovirus pathogenesis, they are not orally susceptible to infection (unless the interferon system is disabled) and therefore cannot reliably be used to test protection conferred by immunization.

It seems premature to pass an act banning research on chimpanzees. These animals are needed for testing anti-HCV therapies and vaccines, and as stated in the bill, it is not yet clear if other animal models will replace chimpanzees. It seems prudent to wait until we have a suitable animal model for HCV (and other infectious and non-infectious diseases which currently require chimpanzees) before outlawing the use of this animal in research.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Connor Bamford 5 December 2012, 9:31 am

    I went to a talk by a guy looking to develop an ebola vaccine specifically for great apes. Yet to do this he planned on trial vaccinating chimps and gorillas in zoos and in the wild with a darted measles vaccine and now this work is becoming impossible to continue, despite having the potential to enormously benefit these animals!

  • Alan Dove 5 December 2012, 12:07 pm

    Legislative bans on particular types of science usually indicate that something has gone horribly wrong in the lawmaking process. If there’s concern that chimps are being subjected to cruel and unnecessary experimentation, the correct venue for addressing that is in the (existing and extensive) rules regulating animal experiments. I think what happened here is that certain activists found they couldn’t get what they wanted through the normal regulatory route, so they drove around it by going to Congress, where appeals to emotion and ignorance are much easier to press.

  • Dorian McILROY 8 December 2012, 4:54 am

    I must say it rather saddens me to see you take a stand in favor of the use of chimpanzees in medical research. It seems to me that you are misrepresenting the arguments for stopping the use of chimpanzees by claiming that they are based on an emotional appeal devoid of scientific justification. This ignores research on the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees, which sets them apart from other animals and gives a rational basis for the extention of some limited human rights to chimpanzees. That is to say, that it would be ethically wrong to farm chimpanzees for meat, keep them as pets, or indeed, use them for medical research.

    Just as a thought experiment, imagine that a small relict population of neanderthals were to be discovered. Since these neanderthals are genetically closer to human beings than chimpanzees, these individuals would be a better model for human diseases than chimpanzees. Should we use them for biomedical research? After all, they are a different species – so where is the harm? Of course, I would contend that even though this hypothetical neanderthal population would be biologically distinct from Homo sapiens, they should, nevertheless be accorded human rights, because of their

    Of course, there are plenty of other good reasons not to use chimpanzees in biomedical research – they are not human beings, so the results obtained will have to be confirmed in humans anyway; they are large and expensive to use so the size of experimental groups will always be small. This last point is perhaps the main reason why humanized mouse models were developed in the first place – because at least you can perform a decent, meaningful experiment if you have 5 to 10 age-matched animals per group. This cannot be done with chimpanzees, so the results you get from the model are always going to be weak – even less reliable than a small single-centre, unblinded clinical study.

  • zmil 11 December 2012, 12:42 am

    There are other approaches to taxonomy besides rigid cladism. By your logic Reptilia is an invalid taxonomic group, and coelacanths are no more fish than whales are. Sometimes paraphyletic groups make sense biologically, if the offending nested taxon has diverged dramatically from its fellow clade members. I’m not saying cladistics is the wrong way to look at things, but classification does not have to be all about family trees all the time. In the case of humans and the other great apes, well, we have some extremely noticeable differences from our cousins; in some ways, chimps are more similar to gorillas than to us.

    As for the question of animal testing, I’m pretty ignorant about the types of studies done on chimps, but…mouse models? Ugh. Not worthless, but I sometimes wonder if, in recent years, the harm of meaningless results has begun to outweigh the benefit of the useful data that does come from mouse studies.

  • Dorian McILROY 11 December 2012, 7:28 am

    Well, you are right on the general point about paraphyletic groups making sense in some contexts, but in the present case, the question is really whether to consider chimpanzees more like humans, or more like other great apes, from an ethical standpoint. Some of the obvious traits that can be used to group chimpanzees with gorillas and orang-utans (hairy body, seem to have four hands rather than two hands and two feet) are not particularly relevant for this discussion. That’s why I began my comment by pointing out that the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees put them closer to human beings than most people think. These are the traits that are important for this particular debate, to me, at any rate.

    What would your stance be on the hypothetical use of neanderthals for invasive medical research btw?

    Oh, and I seem not to be able to spell “extension” any more.

  • zmil 13 December 2012, 7:15 pm

    Oops, forgot I’d commented here.

    That is a good point. To be honest, I somehow missed your comments on
    chimp cognitive abilities. I would agree that cognitive traits are the key differences for this question, and it’s an area I don’t know much about. However, for any measure of cognitive ability, I would expect that the distance between humans and chimps would be far greater than the distance between chimps and other great apes. But this is just my impression.

    As for Neanderthals, my general assumption is that they were quite similar to us in cognitive capacity and I would expect to treat them like slightly odd humans. However, if I am wrong and they turn out to be much, much dumber and human-like cognitively, well, things could get interesting. I suppose one simple rule of thumb would be, ‘if you can have babies with it, it’s human.’ Which would probably make Neanderthals human, if the papers on Neanderthal admixture are right.