The IOM committee found that many alternatives to chimpanzee research are more effective, less expensive, and in the long run yield more reliable results in far less time.The key message here is that our scientific community should proceed to phase out invasive chimpanzee research. It should also redouble its work to improve alternatives to the last remaining and highly controversial area of research identified by the committee as arguably still justifiable—the development of a vaccine to prevent Hepatitis C.

The committee explained that it was not charged to examine the ethical dimensions of biomedical research on chimpanzees explicitly and noted that its composition did not allow it to do so within the professional expertise of its members. Yet even without the benefit of a serious ethical evaluation, it is significant that the scientific committee was evenly split on the decision as to whether the marginal gains that might be reached by using chimpanzees in the testing of this vaccine justified the pain and suffering inflicted on these extraordinarily advanced animals.
Those who have been defending invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees, including the National Institutes of Health, have repeatedly claimed that chimpanzees are necessary. Now the IOM has declared that these claims do not withstand scrutiny and that even the claim for one area – a vaccine for hepatitis C – could not bring consensus among the committee experts.
The ethical concerns about the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research have been forcefully advanced in a number of ways. An undercover investigation by The Humane Society of the United States in 2008 showed us what life is like behind closed doors at New Iberia Research Center, a primate facility in Louisiana. We saw chimpanzees exhibiting neurotic behavior after being housed alone in small, barren cages for months at a time. The haunting exposé also showed terrified chimpanzees falling several feet onto a concrete floor after being shot with a tranquilizer gun and then taken into an operating room. Chimpanzees have amazing cognitive abilities, are social creatures and experience pleasure, grief and depression. Some chimpanzees used for research have been diagnosed with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Concerned people are shocked to learn that there are chimpanzees, like Flo at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico and Wenka at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia, who have been locked up in labs for more than 50 years. It is time to give them the peace that they deserve, before it is too late.
The jury is now in on the science, and public surveys indicate strong opposition to subjecting these long lived and sentient animals to such misery. Only two countries in the world continue to use chimpanzees in invasive research—the United States and Gabon in Western Africa. What to do next is simple. We must work swiftly to pass the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, which would phase out invasive research on chimpanzees and retire the 500 government-owned chimpanzees to sanctuaries. We call upon our colleagues at NIH and other medical research institutions across the country to act on the overwhelming evidence available by supporting this legislation.
Jennifer Leaning, M.D. and David O. Wiebers, M. D. serve on the board of The Humane Society of the United States.