K Street lobbies hard over limits on medical research with chimps

Moves by Washington to limit or ban medical research that uses chimpanzees have triggered a lobbying counteroffensive on K Street.

Major universities have squared off with animal welfare groups over legislation — known as the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act — that would end federally funded research with chimps and other apes. The Obama administration, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is also looking at how to implement new restrictions on the use of chimps by scientists.

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In response to those efforts, one of the few research facilities in the country that still houses chimps bulked up its Washington representation with more lobbyists, according to disclosure records. 

Researchers at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute argue that ending the use of chimps in research could limit science that has helped treat human diseases such as HIV, malaria and cancer. 

“If the act passed, biomedical research utilizing chimpanzees would eventually end, possibly before scientists could develop an effective vaccine for Hepatitis C, which is a devastating world health problem,” Joe Carey, vice president for public affairs at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, told The Hill. 

Texas Biomedical hired Thompson Hine to lobby on research using chimps on Jan. 9, according to the firm’s registration form. The facility already paid $120,000 to Lewis-Burke Associates for lobbying in 2011, according to records.

“Because of the public debate over chimpanzees in biomedical research, hiring someone in Washington to represent our interests made sense,” Carey said.

Regulators and animal-rights groups have targeted the facility for criticism.

Texas Biomedical announced this month it was fined more than $25,000 by the Agriculture Department for incidents in 2009 and 2010 when baboons and a rhesus monkey escaped their cages. Last year, NIH delayed a transfer of chimps to Texas Biomedical from an Alamogordo, N.M., facility after the agency came under pressure from animal-rights advocates.  

Despite the attention it has garnered, research that uses chimps is rare. Federal funds are provided for research involving more than 600 chimps at five facilities across the country.

Nevertheless, the research has come under threat this year. Sensing political momentum, animal welfare groups have pushed for a complete ban, arguing it could save the government millions.

“We have argued that this could save $300 million by taking this tiny segment of animals used in medical research out of the pipeline,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. “When we have a lot of tough budget-cutting decisions to make as a nation, this decision doesn’t seem so tough.”

Animal-rights advocates are working on multiple fronts to phase out the research.    

Along with the legislation, Pacelle noted a report issued last month by the Institute of Medicine, as authorized by NIH. The report said most biomedical-research use of chimps is unnecessary and offered recommendations that would limit it.

That report immediately put the brakes on future federal funding for research using chimps. NIH said it would not issue any new grants for the research until the report’s recommendations are implemented.

Another effort began in 2011, when animal-rights groups filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list captive chimps as “endangered,” like their counterparts in the wild, and not “threatened,” as was proposed in 1989. The more stringent listing would protect captive chimps from research.

“That was an unprecedented split listing,” Pacelle said. “Our contention is the numbers in the wild continue to decline, so they all should be listed as endangered.”

Scientists and academics are battling back. They contend the Institute of Medicine’s report did not endorse a total ban on research using chimps and said it’s impossible to predict if such research will be needed again in the future.

Several research schools that don’t house chimps are also lobbying on the issue, fearing that other animals could someday be banned from research.

“We are concerned with where this might head concerning with what people can and cannot do with research,” said Rhonda Norsetter, director of federal relations for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We respect the invaluable health research that is being conducted, including, in some cases, animal research.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison does not conduct research with chimps, but it is part of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a trade group of 61 research schools, which has taken issue with the proposed legislation to ban the practice.

In a two-page handout given to lawmakers last June, AAU said the legislation under consideration by Congress would “would halt or delay ongoing research on devastating diseases for which no other animal model exists and could harm research that directly benefits chimpanzees and other great apes.”

“This may be the first step toward restricting research using other non-human primates,” said Carrie Wolinetz, AAU’s associate vice president for federal relations.

Wolinetz noted that only one member of her group, Emory University, houses a facility for research using chimps, but she estimated that many more members use rhesus monkeys for research.

The bill would ban any federally funded invasive research on great apes, which the legislation defines as a chimp, bonobo, gorilla, orangutan or gibbon. It would also be illegal to breed great apes for research, or to transport them to a facility for research.

Sponsored by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), the bill has 154 co-sponsors, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supporting it.

A Bartlett aide said the congressman believes the number of the bill’s co-sponsors will warrant enough attention from House leaders to advance the bill so “our laws can catch up with the science.”

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), has 13 co-sponsors so far.

A Cantwell aide said the goal is to continue to gather co-sponsors for the bill and earn a markup from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this year.