WASHINGTON - The National Institutes of Health plans to end most use of chimpanzees in government medical research, saying humans' closest relatives "deserve special respect."
The NIH announced Wednesday that it will retire about 310 government-owned chimpanzees from research over the next few years, and keep only 50 others essentially on retainer to use only on crucial studies that can be performed no other way.
NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said the decision helps usher in "a compassionate era."
The NIH's decision was long expected, after the prestigious Institute of Medicine declared in 2011 that nearly all use of chimps for invasive medical research no longer can be justified. Much of the rest of the world already had ended such research.
Any future biomedical research funded by the NIH with chimps, government-owned or not, would be allowed only under strict conditions after review by a special advisory board. In five years, the NIH will reassess if even that group of 50 government-owned apes still is needed for science.
"This is an historic moment and major turning point for chimpanzees in laboratories, some who have been languishing in concrete housing for over 50 years," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. "It is crucial now to ensure that the release of hundreds of chimpanzees to sanctuary becomes a reality."
What's unclear is exactly where the retiring chimps, which have spent their lives in research facilities around the country, will spend their final years. NIH said they could eventually join more than 150 other chimps already in the national sanctuary system operated by Chimp Haven in northwest Louisiana. In that habitat, the chimps can socialize at will, climb trees and explore different play areas.
But NIH officials said currently there's not enough space to handle all of the 310 being retired. They're exploring additional locations.
The other hurdle is money: Congress limited how much the NIH can spend on chimps in the sanctuary system. Negotiations are under way to shift money spent housing the animals in research facilities toward supporting their retirement.
"Everybody should understand this is not something that is going to happen quickly," Collins cautioned.
One chimp center, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, said keeping just 50 chimps for ongoing research isn't enough and could hamper efforts to fight human illnesses and diseases that kill apes.
Moreover, moving retired chimpanzees "would take them away from their caregivers, many of whom they have known all of their lives," said an institute statement that argued the chimps do better if they stayed put.
Chimps rarely have been used for drug testing or other invasive research in recent years; studies of chimp behavior or genetics are a bit more common. Of nine biomedical projects underway, the NIH said six would be ended early. Of another 13 behavioral or genetic studies involving chimps, five would be ended early.