The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced on their website a new rule elevating the status of captive chimpanzees in the U.S. from “threatened” to “endangered.” This new ruling effectively means that biomedical research with the chimpanzee model may become difficult, if not impossible, to conduct. Of the 36 proposed species for relisting, only captive chimpanzees would have an impact on scientific discovery. It is perplexing how reclassifying captive chimpanzees in the U.S. as endangered, which have been purpose bred for research, would result in any material benefit to the species in the wild. Ongoing research projects involving the chimpanzee model are now required to request a “take” permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a potentially lengthy process that will likely result in the discontinuation of a number of current studies.
In 2013, NABR provided recommendations to the agency, explaining the past, current, and future potential benefits of chimpanzee research on both human and ape health.
Chimpanzees have been an important part of medical advancement in the United States for decades. The contribution the species has made to medicine benefits nearly every child born in America today. Most children get their first dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine at birth, and the Hepatitis A vaccine is typically administered at age 1. Without the chimpanzee model, which naturally carries the virus, researchers would not have been able to produce vaccines for either Hepatitis A or Hepatitis B.
The Service acknowledges in its rulemaking notice that chimpanzees suffer from many of the same diseases humans do by stating, “…diseases, including Marburg virus, polio, anthrax, pneumonia, human respiratory syncytical virus, and human metapneumovirus have resulted in widespread death of chimpanzees, even within national parks.” To suggest that medical research with the chimpanzee model does not benefit both the human and chimpanzee species simply is inaccurate.
The full impact the new FWS ruling will have on biomedical research is unclear. However, it would be unfortunate, even grave, should an infectious disease outbreak occur where human lives are at stake and a chimpanzee model could expedite development of life-saving medicines.