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Sidelined research chimpanzees given longer reprieve

Primates called back to testing, after a decade off, are being held after politicians intervene. A study will determine whether they are still needed.

January 08, 2011|By Michael Haederle, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Albuquerque — A controversial plan to resume biomedical testing on semiretired, government-owned research chimpanzees living in Alamogordo, N.M., has been put on hold after the intervention of New Mexico politicians and a trio of U.S. senators.

The National Institutes of Health announced this week that it would keep the 186 chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility instead of transferring them to a San Antonio research center while the National Academy of Sciences determines whether chimps are still needed in biomedical research.

The study will draw on the expertise of an ad hoc committee of scientists who belong to the private, nonprofit National Academy of Sciences, spokeswoman Christine Stencel said.

The decision follows a Dec. 15 letter to NIH Director Francis S. Collins from Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Tom Harkin of Iowa. They called for an immediate halt to invasive research on the chimps while the study is conducted. Harkin chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, which oversees the NIH budget.

Udall has opposed moving the chimps since the plan was announced last summer, as have former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who visited the NIH to make his point, and state Atty. Gen. Gary King.

The chimps, the oldest of which is 53, have been infected with HIV, hepatitis C and other viruses, undergone liver biopsies and been anaesthetized repeatedly, but they have been spared from testing for a decade or more.

Government scientists say the chimps are needed for critical disease research, but national animal welfare organizations maintain there are better test methods and argue that it is unethical to experiment on self-aware creatures.

"We've argued for the permanent retirement of all of these chimps and converting the Alamogordo Primate Facility into a sanctuary," said Laura Bonar, program director for Animal Protection of New Mexico, an advocacy group. "It's been a blot on our history."

Haederle writes for The Times.

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