After almost 10 years in retirement, the U.S. government wants to relocate some 200 chimpanzees from their habitat in New Mexico to a lab in San Antonio, Texas where they can once again be used to test the safety and efficacy of new therapeutics. And the prospect has outraged animal rights groups, which are once again pitted against drug researchers in a heated exchange over the practice.
These primates, which share as much as 98 percent of human DNA, are prized by scientists as an ideal animal model for therapeutic research work. And they particularly want the chimps on hand to test new therapies for hepatitis C and hepatitis B, as they are the only other animal species that can be infected with the target viruses.
"We only use chimpanzees when it's not possible to do critical experiments with any other species," John VandeBerg, director of the San Antonio primate center, tells the Los Angeles Times. "They are not people, they are animals. I believe it's our ethical responsibility to do the research to alleviate the pain, suffering and deaths of millions of human beings."
Animal rights organizations, however, have a distinctly different attitude about ethics and animal research. Several have been furious that the National Institutes of Health has authorized the relocation of the chimps--many of which are quite elderly by chimp standards--to the Texas lab. The chimps were handed over to Charles River Laboratories back in 2001 for safekeeping after the research lab they had been housed in was accused of abusing and neglecting the animals. Now the NIH thinks that they could once again be extremely valuable for scientists, particularly those in pursuit of a hepatitis C vaccine.