Federally funded research labs conduct thousands of experiments that rely on monkeys and other nonhuman primates — and now, Congress is ramping up its scrutiny of that science.
As part of the congressional appropriations process in the House this year, lawmakers directed both the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to produce reports detailing the ways the agency’s scientists use the thousands of nonhuman primates in their research centers.
Animal rights advocates are praising the oversight, saying research on monkeys is inhumane, inefficient, and unreliable. They argue that while federal agencies have been lauded for a relatively recent push to end research on chimpanzees, the use of other nonhuman primates has actually increased by about 22% since 2015 to the highest levels ever — and they want the NIH and FDA to explain why.
Leading the push among lawmakers is Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), who drafted the language in both the reports addressing the NIH and FDA.
“I want NIH and FDA to put a plan in place that responsibly phases out the expensive, inefficient and inhumane practice of primate testing, in favor of modern research alternatives,” she said in an emailed statement.
Scientists and advocates for responsible animal research, however, argue that some studies can’t be conducted in mice or using other alternatives that animal research advocates have suggested, like computer models. They say working with nonhuman primates is currently the only way to tackle certain research questions about diseases like HIV, Ebola, Alzheimer’s, and ALS.
“I’d love for them to be eliminated from research immediately, but unfortunately, the reality of the situation right now is they still are the optimal model for the study of these diseases that concern the American public,” said Cindy Buckmaster, chairperson at Americans for Medical Progress, which advocates for humane animal research. “And so you can’t have it both ways, yet.”
The new congressional scrutiny into nonhuman primates almost guarantees to keep agencies like NIH and FDA at the center of a long-running debate about federally funded animal research. And it comes as the NIH is finally nearing the completion of an effort to phase out all of its research on chimpanzees and transfer as many as possible to sanctuaries — a process that proved to be much more difficult and expensive than anticipated.
“I think everyone can agree that more transparency about how taxpayer money is being spent now in government animal labs is a good first step to identifying where waste and abuse can be cut,” said Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project — a “taxpayer watchdog group” advocating against wasteful animal research.
Across the United States, about one-half of 1% of animal research involves nonhuman primates — a figure that represents about 76,000 primates currently being used in other experiments, according to the most recent figures published by the USDA. The category includes research on a wide range of animals; about two-thirds are rhesus macaques, but others study cynomolgus macaques, baboons, and other species, per an NIH report.
Many of the studies are performed at institutions that focus specifically on these animals, a network of National Primate Research Centers. The NIH funds a large portion of these experiments, giving 249 grants in 2017 that supported nonhuman primate research, up from 171 in 2013, according to Science magazine.
Animal rights advocates have been working for decades to reduce the number of primates used in medical research, and in 2015 they notched at least a partial victory — the NIH announced its would phase chimpanzees out of research labs across the country. This came after a 2011 Institute of Medicine report concluded that chimpanzees were not necessary for research purposes. The same year, Harvard University closed its primate research center after a federal investigation into the deaths of four of its primates.
But for advocates, these measures were not enough. They believe that animals are suffering from both physical pain and psychological distress for wasteful and unnecessary experiments. They think that animals are not a reliable model for much of the research that they are being used for and therefore should not be used.
“For too long, wasteful government primate testing has really continued unchecked, and these new congressional efforts aim to add some much-needed accountability and transparency to taxpayer-funded primate experiments,” Goodman said.
Many Americans feel similarly. In a 2018 public poll done by the Pew Research Center, a slight majority of Americans supported ending research that relies on nonhuman primates — with 52% of U.S. adults saying they were opposed to the practice.
This is not the first time Congress has stepped in to ask the NIH for more information on their research involving primates. In 2016, Congress asked the NIH to review its ethical policies in relation to the use of animals as research subjects — specifically requiring the NIH to consult with outside experts.
Some advocates raised concerns regarding the length and content of the programming at the workshop that NIH held to fulfill Congress’ request, and criticized the agency’s decision not to include a single ethicist in the program, according to Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States.
“I just feel it’s fraudulent, the way we’re using public funding, without really even finding out if it’s working,” Conlee said.
This year, the legislative language directing NIH and FDA to produce reports on their nonhuman primate research is not formal legislation up for a vote in Congress, but rather a directive from the House Appropriations Committee included in a “report” that accompanies those agencies’ appropriations for 2020.
It specifically calls out the increase in reliance on monkey research — especially for work that studies pain and distress. The use of monkeys in that category of research has increased by nearly 50% since 2014.
“The Committee urges the NIH to accelerate efforts to reduce and replace the use of nonhuman primates with alternative research models,” the report reads.
Some research advocates fear for what the increased scrutiny into primate research could mean for the future of research related to human health and safety. They say existing HIV treatment options and an Ebola vaccine wouldn’t have been possible without primate research, and nor would research into cognitive disorders affecting an aging American population such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Huntington’s.
Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which advocates in support of “ethical and essential animal research,” mentioned specifically the “crucial” role these animals play in evaluating new therapeutics in human clinical trials. He argued that research institutions are already working hard to avoid using animals whenever they can. Any argument to the contrary is “preposterous,” he said.
“Science, not politicians catering to special interest groups, should determine the most appropriate models for their work,” Bailey said in an emailed statement. “The language is part of a much broader effort to reduce or end federal and federally-funded biomedical research by animal rights activist groups, and it represents a very concerning slippery slope.”
The NIH also defended the research in a 2018 report that detailed the agency’s use of nonhuman primates and their role in the research agenda. The report outlined the historical trends of this research and attempted to explain the increasing research demand for primates and the future needs for the research.
Spokeswomen for both the NIH and the FDA said the agency could not comment on pending legislation.
Americans for Medical Progress’ Buckmaster also defended the increasing use of primates in research, saying it tracked alongside increasing public concern about infectious and cognitive diseases. For much of today’s research into these illnesses, she said, primate models are the only optimal models.
“Working with an animal is a privilege and a responsibility that we have to be very clear about our intentions,” Buckmaster said. “And so if we’re going to work with an animal, for some reason, we have to choose the optimal model.”
Some members of animal rights groups, however, question how reliable nonhuman primates are for research purposes. Conlee, who previously worked in a primate research and breeding laboratory, said her experience opened her eyes to the inefficiencies in this research.
“Time and again, we show that using animals doesn’t give us the results that really end up helping humans,” Conlee said. “I think there’s just this general notion that they’re so like us, let’s use more of them. And we’re saying no, that’s actually not the case.”
She points to chimpanzees failing as a model for HIV research as an example of this phenomenon.
These alternative models have extreme limitations, according to Buckmaster, because of how little researchers currently know about humans’ biological complexity and the importance of continuing basic research devoted to learning more.
“In essence, then what you’re suggesting is that I program something to behave like something I don’t fully understand in order to understand more about what I don’t understand,” Buckmaster said.
“If you don’t know what it looks like, and how it works when it’s healthy, then you’re gonna have a hard time trying to figure out what’s wrong with it when it’s not working properly,” she continued.
Over half of NIH grant funding is allocated to basic research, and according to Buckmaster, primates play a necessary role in this kind of research so that we can better understand our biological systems and can apply it to more practical research such as drug development, and to making these alternative computer models feasible tools.
“If I’m going to ask a computer to behave in every way and on every level, like an intact living system, then I have to know everything there is to know about that system in order to program it to behave that way,” Buckmaster said.
Buckmaster, however, does see a future where it could be possible to eliminate primate research, and emphasizes that scientists and researchers are always trying to move towards that goal.
“I applaud what it is they’re trying to do here, but this is what we do ordinarily; this is science,” Buckmaster said. “We’re always moving in that direction of reduction and replacement and trying to get to that more predictive, the best predictive answer.”
Retiring chimpanzees has also proven to be a difficult and expensive task and, currently, the NIH does not allocate any money for post-study retirement for primates used in experiments. Buckmaster said the funding required for these measures should be a part of the discussion.
“It’s irresponsible of the lawmakers to put this stuff out, without informing the public about the financial burden that’s going to accompany this,” Buckmaster said. “They need to be able to make their decisions in the full scope of reality, about what’s what this really means.”
As for the report currently working its way through Congress, Goodman sees it as a win on all sides.
“The people who oppose this very common sense bipartisan reporting requirement, have never met an animal experiment they didn’t like,” Goodman said.