Friday, August 12, 2011

Day two at the federal committee meeting on using chimpanzees in research

Public deliberations ended this morning. I’ve got to try very hard to keep my optimism from overtaking my more pragmatic expectations for the committee’s recommendations on chimpanzees in research. During my 30+ years of working in public affairs, for or with all levels of government, I’ve seen committee reports make totally unexpected swings, usually attributable to the voices we didn’t hear during testimony or deliberations.
With that said, however, I must admit to being a tiny bit encouraged by the presentations yesterday and today. Last night I gave a sense of my reaction yesterday. Today was even better.
Bioterrorism is often thrown up as the big fear factor to keep chimpanzees handy for testing the response to… well… whatever. Is it a legitimate reason, or a canard?
Is chimpanzee research critical to the health security of the U.S. “No,” answered Joseph Bielitzki, an expert on security research.
Is there a role for chimpanzees in biodefense research? “No,” said James Swearengen, from the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center. He’s not aware of any past use of chimpanzees, there is no current use, and he doesn’t envision the need for chimpanzees in the future.
The same question on biodefense was put to Michael Kurilla, director of biodefense research at the National Institutes of Health. Mr. Kurilla phrased his “no” in government-speak: chimpanzees do not offer any advantage over any other animal model.
The only presenter today who asserted that chimpanzees were needed (although he failed to make the case that they were “necessary,” which is a small but important difference) was Thomas Rowell, director of New Iberia Research Center, which has 360 chimpanzees, 120 of whom are considered “NIH chimps.” About 8 percent of his income is from outside use of his chimpanzees for the biomedical “chimp model.”  (To view a video of conditions at New Iberia, see this report from the Humane Society.) Rowell told the committee that requests for chimpanzees were declining, and when committee members asked him if the chimpanzees were necessary for those requests, he spoke in terms of profitability for pharma and biotech companies. “I remember when their stocks split!” he declared when talking about a “promising” result from research. “Smaller companies will be handicapped,” he explained, noting that they didn’t have access to emerging alternative research tools like Big Pharma does.
In last night’s blog, I failed to mention the considerations on using chimpanzees in behavioral research. As much as I admire Frans De Waal, I must say that he did not have a compelling answer to the question of necessity in the current research paradigm. “If we didn’t have chimpanzees in behavioral research, what would be lost?” he was asked. He responded that we would lose the evolutionary framework for studying humans. Beyond that, the major justification seems to be that chimpanzee behavioral studies are useful for informing human mental health research, although Frans conceded there wasn’t a direct connection. (Regular readers of my blog might guess that I have a very personal interest in this line of research.) Judging by the reactions of the committee members, I am not sure they were convinced that that is an overwhelming justification for studying chimpanzees at the Yerkes Center rather than in African sanctuaries. It seems to be a matter of convenience, one presenter suggested, that U.S. centers have the technology and equipment and caging, and some researchers don’t want to spend time in Africa. I will be very interested to see what the committee recommends on this.
The Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research will now recede from the public view, at least for the next couple of weeks. They will write their report, and anonymous reviewers will critique it. The plan is to issue a public report by the end of the calendar year.
To borrow a couple of weasel words, I am cautiously optimistic. I will be shocked if nothing changes, but I’m not sure how far the committee will go in curtailing the use of chimpanzees. Almost all of the objective presenters (those whose incomes/profits don’t depend on the use of chimpanzees) stated that chimpanzees are no longer required for research. Unfortunately, my experience tells me to fear the voice that doesn’t speak during public meetings.

If you'd like to send comments to the committee go to this site.

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