Most, but not all, biomedical experiments on chimpanzees are unnecessary, according to a report commissioned by the National Institutes of Health, which found only two areas of research that might warrant use of the animals.
Still, the report, from a committee of the Institute of Medicine, left the door open for experiments concerning potentially fatal or debilitating human diseases that cannot be done any other way. The NIH was expected to decide immediately what actions to take based on the report's recommendations.
Jeffrey Kahn, chairman of the committee that produced the report and a professor of bioethics and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, said, "What we did was establish a set of rigorous criteria that set the bar quite high for use of chimpanzees in biomedical or behavioral research."
Clearly, the recommendations were open to interpretation. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which is strongly opposed to any experimentation on chimpanzees, said, "We're tremendously encouraged" by the findings that "chimps are largely unnecessary" for research.
The report is the result of a nearly two-year conflict over bringing semi-retired chimpanzees back into use as experimental subjects, which itself is only one confrontation in a continuing struggle over whether it is morally acceptable and scientifically useful to use chimps in invasive experiments.
Use of chimpanzees is on the wane already and the report covers only chimps owned or supported by the government, 612 of a total of 937 chimps available for research in the United States.
For invasive biomedical experiments, the report concluded that the use of chimps was justified when there was no other way to do the research and if not doing the research would "significantly slow or prevent important advancements to prevent, control and/or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions."
For behavioral experiments, the report recommended that the research should be done only if animals are cooperative, and in a way to minimize pain and distress.
The report also recommended that chimpanzees be housed in conditions that are behaviorally, socially and physically appropriate. All U.S. primate research centers are already accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, and Kahn said this accreditation meets the committee's recommendation.
That was one area where the Humane Society disagreed with the report.
"That language," said Pacelle, referring to the requirements for adequate cages and enclosures, "was disappointing to us."