Chimp-free labs

A chimpanzee at the Ohio State University animal laboratory, looks out from his play room.
A chimpanzee at the Ohio State University animal laboratory, looks out from his play room.

The National Institutes of Health has taken a big step toward more-humane treatment of animals: An NIH committee of scientists proposes ending the use of chimpanzees in federally funded research.

In 2011, the NIH’s Institute of Medicine declared that most biomedical research involving chimpanzees, which have close genetic proximity to humans, was unnecessary. The agency called for more study and curtailed new grants for work using chimpanzees.

Last week, the institute’s Council of Councils Working Group made its recommendations, which are likely to lead to a final decision by April. High-speed computer simulation and other technology, the council said, have made what many people consider a morally dubious practice irrelevant as well.

The council urged that all but 50 of the 451 chimps funded by the federal government be retired from laboratories and sent to an animal sanctuary. The remaining 50 would be kept in more-spacious enclosures for possible research — but only if experiments on them were the sole way to study a human health threat.

The recommendations are a victory for animal rights advocates and others who oppose what they call the barbaric treatment of chimpanzees in the name of science. The fact that some chimps still will be available for experiments makes it a less-than-complete triumph.

Tests on chimpanzees helped scientists develop the hepatitis A and B vaccines, understand the role played by salt in high blood pressure, and devise antibodies for treating cancer. Today, though, there are other ways of gaining such knowledge.

Let’s hope the NIH follows the advice of its council and accepts this reality.