This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Animal Action.
Nonhuman primate research is on the rise. Here’s why—and how we’re going to reverse the trend.
Bred in captivity, they’re torn away from their mothers when they are at their most vulnerable, just to see how “maternal deprivation” affects them. They’re kept for years in small metal cages and forced to repeatedly ingest dose after dose of cocaine. They’re isolated, infected with deadly viruses and then killed. They’re known by many names—macaques, baboons, marmosets—but together, they’re all broadly considered “nonhuman primates.” And their use represents a growing—and disturbing—trend in animal experimentation.
Throughout our 90-year history, NAVS has stood firm in opposition to the use of all animals in scientific research for both ethical and scientific reasons. Not only is animal experimentation a cruel practice, but it can also produce misleading results which sidetrack meaningful scientific progress.
So in 2013, when the National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins announced that most chimpanzees would no longer be used in research and would be retired to a sanctuary, we were overjoyed with the news. “Chimpanzees are our closest relatives,” he stated, and “they deserve special respect.”
But has this “special respect” given to chimpanzees been expanded to include other nonhuman primates as well? To find out, we turned to statistics released by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) to examine trends in nonhuman primate use over time.
What we discovered was troubling.
The use of nonhuman primate in research on the rise. Nonhuman primates now account for nearly 9.6% of all Animal Welfare Act-covered animals used in research, up from 2.6% when record collection first began.
While the use of nonhuman primates has fluctuated over time, it has increased by nearly 80% since record collection first began. Interestingly, nonhuman primate use has jumped by 31% since 2014, shortly after the NIH announcement to retire chimpanzees. The most recent statistics show that 75,825 nonhuman primates were used in research in 2017. This marks the highest use of nonhuman primates in research in the United States since record collection began in 1973. Moreover, in 2017, an additional 34,369 nonhuman primates were bred, conditioned or held for use in teaching, testing, experiments, research or surgery, but not yet used for such purposes.
What is even more worrisome is that that there is an interest in further increasing the use of these animals. A report recently released by the NIH entitled “Nonhuman Primate Evaluation and Analysis” concluded that “increased demand for both rhesus macaques and marmosets is expected in the coming 5 years,” due in part to an increased use of these species for HIV/AIDs research and for behavioral and systems neuroscience studies, among other areas of research. And over the last few months, scientists have held workshops to discuss nonhuman primate research specifically, including one that focused on using primates in neuroscience research and another that addressed the use of marmosets for gene editing-based biomedical research.
During that same time, last fall, there was a push by those with a vested interest in animal research to make it easier to transport nonhuman primates and other animals for the purposes of experimentation. Currently, the vast majority of airlines refuse to accept research-bound animals for transport, but researchers are trying to change this.
These activities have made it very apparent that the research community is eager to use more nonhuman primates. Historically, the biomedical research community has relied heavily on nonhuman primates for many kinds of studies, including pharmaceutical research and development, neuroscience research, infectious disease research, maternal deprivation studies, organ or tissue transplantation, and many others.
Increased use of nonhuman primates is not the will of the American public, whose taxpayer dollars fund these experiments as this news comes on the heels of a Pew research survey conducted last spring, which revealed that the majority of Americans—52%—now oppose the use of animals in scientific research. This number is up from the 43% of individuals who held that belief in 2009 and the findings are consistent with overall trends reported in recent Gallup polls which have shown decreasing levels of support for medical testing on animals.
For these reasons, and with your help, NAVS has been working hard to effect change to reverse the troubling increased use of nonhuman primates.
One of the first things we did upon recognizing this worrisome trend was to contact Dr. Collins to express our concern. We felt it was important that the NIH recognize the welfare of nonhuman primates as a top priority and that they actively seek the development of alternatives that will replace their use in research.
We also used this opportunity to express our concerns about a 2016 NIH workshop that was supposed to address the bioethics of nonhuman primate research, held at the request of Congress. If you recall, a serious conversation about ethics did not take place, as not one of the presentations at the day-long workshop was allotted to a bioethicist.
While a spokesperson from the NIH did reply to our inquiry with a disappointing response stating that “the rise in the use of certain NHPs is not surprising and represents both the state of the science and the importance of NHPs in research,” the individual did mention that our concerns would be taken into consideration to determine whether there is a need for renewed examination of the use of nonhuman primates in research—which there is.
Just because nonhuman primates can be used for research does not mean that they should. Researchers are making claims about the “necessity” of nonhuman primate research without sufficient scientific and ethical justification. When such criteria were established for chimpanzees, this ultimately led to the animals no longer being used in biomedical research.
In any case, researchers will not relinquish the nonhuman primate model if they feel that alternatives to their use do not yet exist. To that, we urge the NIH to provide specific incentives and/or funding priorities to encourage scientists to develop more sophisticated, human-relevant models to replace animal use.
At NAVS, we are also taking matters into our own hands by offering a special award through the International Foundation of Ethical Research during the current grant cycle for projects which seek to replace the use of nonhuman primates in biomedical research.
Primates are thinking, feeling creatures who have the capacity to greatly suffer in lab experiments—they should not be used as disposable research tools in the laboratory.