Merck, the world’s third-largest drug maker, cited the availability of alternatives that can replace chimpanzees in research as the reason for its policy change. The move is being applauded by animal advocates and organizations including the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
“Merck’s new biomedical research policy will save chimpanzees from unnecessary and painful experiments. Merck’s decision, and that of several other pharmaceutical companies, sends a strong message that private industry is moving away from chimpanzee research as the government has,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues for the HSUS, in a statement.
Many in the industry have continued to argue that using chimpanzees, and other species, in research is a necessary evil when it comes to the quest to improve human health, but what we’ve learned about the complex nature, intelligence, emotions and social needs of chimps has sparked serious ethical concerns about the use of great apes in biomedical research. Not only are the experiments they’re used in considered inhumane, but investigations have also uncovered neglect, abuse and violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which have raised even more questions about why they’re still being used and why so many are being warehoused in substandard conditions when they’re not needed.
Fortunately, attitudes about their use in research are continuing to change in their favor.
In 2011, a study from the Institute of Medicine concluded that nearly all research on chimpanzees is unnecessary, which was followed by a formal announcement from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this past June that it would be retiring all but 50 of the chimps it owns or funds to Chimp Haven, the national sanctuary in Louisiana. Concerns about how their retirement would be paid for were addressed when Congress passed the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act in November, which will allow the NIH to facilitate their transfer to sanctuaries and fund their retirement care there.
Even with this progress, the battle to get chimps out of labs still isn’t over. The NIH’s decision doesn’t apply to privately owned chimpanzees and there are still an estimated 450 chimpanzees who are still waiting for freedom at the Michale E. Keeling Center, New Iberia Research Center, Southwest National Primate Research Center and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
“It’s been a long road in trying to end the use of chimpanzees in research, and we’re now at a turning point,” Conlee told the AP. “We’re going to keep on (advocating) until the chimpanzees in laboratories are all in sanctuaries.”
Hopefully, Merck’s new stance against using chimpanzees will not only encourage other pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to stop using great apes, but will also be extended to the other animals it continues to use in research.
The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine’s Dr. John Pippin made an excellent point about how this could impact other species, telling USA Today that the turn away from chimps in research could be a sign of positive things to come for other animals in labs.
“It is going to be hard for a researcher to say it is necessary to use animals, when our closest relative, sharing 98% of our DNA, was deemed unnecessary in studies,” he said. “How do you say, ‘Well we can use another animal that shares only 50% of our DNA’? It doesn’t work.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock