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I believe that an animal welfare analysis of chimp research would preclude all but the most serious experiments.  But limited experimentation should be permitted to continue in the cause of preventing and alleviating serious human suffering.

Nature has a piece out describing the stakes in the political debate about whether to outlaw federally funded research on chimpanzees.  From “Chimpanzee Research on Trial” (no link, NATURE | VOL 474 | 16 JUNE 2011)

...the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends about US$12 million a year caring for the chimpanzees it supports (currently totalling 734), versus the billions in health-care costs for the human diseases that can be studied through experiments on chimpanzees. One of them, hepatitis C, currently affects at least 170 million people globally. If researchers don’t have access to the chimp model, said [New Iberia Research Center director, Thomas] Rowell, people afflicted with hepatitis C will suffer. “Their lifespans are going to be shortened. They will not have a proper quality of life.” He called them a “silent voice”. Rowell’s pep talk in April was partly for the benefit of some visitors at the meeting: representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the drug industry and, most importantly, the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM, the medical branch of the independent National Academy of Sciences, was asked by the NIH in January to examine whether the government should keep supporting biomedical research on chimpanzees — the closest living relatives of Homo sapiens...

Proponents say that the research is necessary for continued progress towards a hepatitis-C vaccine; for developing more effective drugs against hepatitis B and C; for testing monoclonal antibody treatments for a variety of conditions; and for research to develop a vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, a seasonal virus that kills more than more than 66,000 children under the age of 5 each year across the globe2. For many of these conditions, backers argue, the chimpanzee is either the only available model, or by far the best one.

None of this matters to those activists who want to stop chimp research no matter the significance of the human benefit.  In my view, the chimp research ban gambit is also intended by some to be opening move that would eventually preclude all animal research.

Opponents like to depict research chimps as being housed in small cages, isolated from others of their kind.  That may have once been true, but no more.  At the NIRL, for example, the animals spend most of their time housed in large pods in social groups, appropriate to their needs.  (The photo above is of the NIRL’s chimp housing campus.)

The story discusses how once the need for using chimps abates for a particular experimental inquiry, it is stopped.  And that should be true of all animal research.  Here’s the bottom line:
Still, [U of Alberta viralologist] MichaelHoughton supports chimpanzee use for hepatitis-C vaccine development, because vaccines must be tested in uninfected individuals. He also supports studies in chimpanzees for the development of riskier immunotherapies against the disease. “As inconveniencing tens of chimpanzees impacts the health of millions of humans, it is unethical not to use the chimp model for certain indications,” says Houghton. He also believes that it would be unwise not to keep humanely treated chimps available in sanctuaries in case of bioterrorist attacks; the animals could be used to study the transmission of infectious bioweapons as well as vaccines and therapies, he says.

That’s how I see it too.  Human exceptionalism imposes duties on us, including the proper and humane treatment of animals.  But we have an even higher duty to ourselves. That means chimps should continue to be used in limited circumstances.  Refraining from doing so would be to refrain from substantially alleviating significant amounts of human suffering.

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