The National Institutes of Health has decided to retire all of its remaining research chimpanzees and relocate them to sanctuaries, Director Francis Collins said Wednesday, effectively ending invasive research on government-owned chimps.

“I think it is a significant moment,” Collins told STAT in an interview, as the end of the program culminates a five-year public debate between the humanitarian concerns for humanity’s closest relatives and the clinical opportunities for chimpanzee research.

“The conclusion seems to have been very strongly leaning in the direction of saying it’s better to stop,” he said.

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Nature first reported the news Wednesday, citing a Nov. 16 email sent by Collins to NIH administrators.

The agency had 50 chimpanzees available for research, two years after retiring more than 300. This week’s move dates back to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report, which concluded that most chimp research was unnecessary. In 2013, an internal NIH panel recommended that the chimp population be reduced to 50 animals and that they be used only if there was a serious need.

Collins said that the NIH had received only one request for chimpanzee research since reducing its population in 2013, and that request was later rescinded. That lack of interest, and a US Fish and Wildlife Service decision earlier this year to classify chimpanzees as an endangered species, led to this week’s decision.

“It seemed to me that it was time,” Collins told STAT. “We have the information we need that keeping the animals in reserve was no longer justified.”

In addition to retiring the NIH-owned chimpanzees, the agency is also evaluating its support for other research using the animals, Collin said. Eighty-two chimpanzees currently have their room-and-board paid for by NIH dollars, but are owned by other entities.

“We have the information we need that keeping the animals in reserve was no longer justified.”

NIH Director Francis Collins

The transition will take time. Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the national chimpanzee sanctuary, has only 25 spots available. The NIH will begin by transferring animals from the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio. But it will take some time to figure out what to do with the others, which will remain in their current homes but cannot be subjected to invasive research.

One possibility is expanding Chimp Haven, Collins said; another is having other locations declared sanctuaries, though that would require congressional action.

“It’s a complex situation that we will continue to press on,” Collins said.

Animal-rights proponents and some researchers praised the decision.

“Now, we really see the agency closing and locking the door behind the chimps and throwing away the key on their way out of the laboratories,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in a blog post. “It’s rare to close out a category of animal use so emphatically. That’s exactly what’s happening here, and it’s thrilling.”

“Given the lack of interest in conducting medical research with chimpanzees, it was clear that the need for this reserve colony did not justify their continued housing in laboratory environments,” Steve Ross, director of the Lester Fisher Center for the Study & Conservation of Apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, told STAT in an email. He urged the NIH to be transparent as it planned for the chimpanzees’ relocation.

But some other researchers at institutions like the Michael E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research at the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, which houses NIH-owned chimpanzees, were critical of the decision to relocate the animals.

“This decision demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the quality of care and the quality of life provided chimpanzees at the Keeling Center,” Christian Abee, the Keeling Center’s director, told Nature.

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