On Primate Research, the U.S. Is ‘Out of Step’ With the Rest of the World
As the European Union phases out animal research, the United States just wants more.
U.S. Increases Federal Budget for Primate Research
From 2019 to 2021, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) invested nearly $29 million to breed more monkeys for biomedical research, with an additional $7.5 million to be spent by October 2021. The investments, which include infrastructure improvements at the U.S. National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs), were made in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as researchers have been testing numerous vaccines on nonhuman primates, most commonly rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta)—a species of Old World monkey commonly used to study infectious diseases—before human trials began.
Using the pandemic as the pretext, the Biden administration proposed using even more taxpayer money to conduct primate research, suggesting a 27 percent funding increase for the NPRCs in its fiscal year 2022 budget request. Congress approved that request, giving an additional $30 million to the centers.
“We have been making investments to bring the levels up and to plan for the future,” James Anderson, director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives in Bethesda, Maryland, told Nature. “What happens if [a pandemic] happens again, with another virus in three years? We want to be ready for that.”
“A couple of years ago, we were feeling the pinch,” Nancy Haigwood, director of the NPRC in Beaverton, Oregon, told Nature in 2021. Citing the pandemic, Haigwood said, “We are truly out of animals,” though Nature reports that the center she runs houses some 5,000 primates.
Cruel and Deadly Experiments
Animal rights advocates are rebuffing the proposed increase in funding, which would subject many more animals to cruel and deadly experiments. In an email to Earth | Food | Life in September 2021, Barbara Stagno, president and executive director of Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Research and Experimentation (CAARE), an animal rights nonprofit organization based in New York, countered the claim that there is a dearth in primates for research. The group launched a public petition in 2021 urging Congress to reject the additional funding for primate research.
While the centers claim that there are not enough primates to conduct research, Stagno presented figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing that the opposite is true. “In 2019, there were 40,269 monkeys held ‘on reserve,’ in addition to the 68,257 monkeys subjected to experiments,” said Stagno. “Not only were over 40,000 monkeys warehoused ‘on hold’ for use in experiments, but that number is a 14 percent increase from 2018, clearly demonstrating a growing surplus—not a shortage—of monkeys.”
On February 8, 2023, a letter signed by over 380 researchers was sent to the National Institutes of Health, urging them to cease funding experiments on nonhuman primates at Harvard Medical School (HMS). Specifically, the letter takes issue with research involving macaque monkeys led by HMS professor Margaret S. Livingstone. The authors of the letter, who are affiliated with Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy Clinic and the University of St Andrews’ Wild Minds Lab, called on the NIH to withdraw funding from nonhuman primate research that lacks “ecological validity” and involves the “cruel and unnecessary treatment of laboratory animals.”
Monkeys: Not Essential for COVID-19 Research
“In contrast to the falsehoods being pushed by the primate centers, monkeys are not essential for COVID-19 research. In fact, due to vast differences in genetics and physiology, primates do not experience COVID-19 as humans do,” said Stagno.
In fact, scientists at the NIH concluded in 2015 that research on SARS and MERS, two strains of coronaviruses that crossed the species barrier to infect humans within the preceding 12 years, had been largely unsuccessful “in part because of difficulties in developing animal models that provide consistent and reproducible results.”
In addition, Stagno pointed out that the trajectory of the COVID-19 biomedical response actually proved that nonhuman animal testing for vaccines is unnecessary. “With the urgency imposed by the pandemic, key vaccine developers Pfizer and Moderna were given the approval to run human trials ahead of normally required animal testing,” she said.
“The result was that vaccines for COVID-19 were developed and made accessible to the public in record time, with less animal testing than ever before. In bypassing animal testing to evaluate the vaccines, the scientific community acknowledged that these tests are not scientifically predictive of human response, but rather are based on regulatory requirements that are a hindrance to rapidly developing safe and effective treatments.”
Using Human-Based Science
Indeed, as CAARE highlights, the most informative work addressing the COVID-19 pandemic comes from human-based science. Other organizations, notably the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit animal rights group based in Washington, D.C., also strongly support alternatives to nonhuman animal research, arguing that the U.S. doesn’t need more monkeys for vaccine testing, but rather a new strategy altogether.
“Instead of monkeys and other animals, more ethical, effective, and sustainable human-based methods are the future,” the group says. “Because they use human cells and tissues, these approaches can better replicate the pathology of human diseases, including COVID-19… examples of powerful human-based COVID-19 research include studies that have used donated human tissue, human brain organoids, human lung airway chips, human stem cell-derived cardiac tissue, human intestinal organoids, and mini human lungs in a dish. Learning from these human-relevant findings and supporting much more of this kind of research is the only way we will solve this crisis and better prepare for future pandemics.”
A 2023 report by the National Academies, “Nonhuman Primate Models in Biomedical Research: State of the Science and Future Needs,” suggests that certain research methods utilizing in vitro or in silico models, often referred to as new approach methodologies, have the potential to supplement or decrease the dependence on nonhuman primates. These methodologies can replicate intricate cellular interactions and other vital functions occurring in vivo, which nonhuman primates have traditionally been used to investigate in pursuit of answers to specific research inquiries.
The United States Is Lagging Behind
Stagno criticized the federal government’s request for more funding for primate research by comparing the U.S. position to that of Europe. “At a time when the European Parliament voted [on September 15 to phase out animal experiments], the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [under whose jurisdiction the NIH falls] is asking for another $30 million to expand primate research. This is totally out of step with where modern science needs to go.”
“While the past decade has seen amazing new developments in alternatives to animal testing, policymakers, regulators, and parts of the scientific community are yet to fully recognize the potential of these new methods,” said Member of the European Parliament Tilly Metz. “The resolution we voted on today aims to accelerate the shift in mentalities, regulation, and funding.”
She added, “There are no excuses to perpetuate the current level of reliance on animal experiments. It is clear that an ambitious phase-out plan, with clear milestones and achievable objectives, is the next step needed to start reducing significantly the use of animals in science.” And while Europe is leading today’s charge to eliminate animal testing, animal welfare, in general, has also been gaining ground across Asia in recent years.
When it comes to cruel, deadly, and unnecessary experiments, particularly on our close evolutionary cousins, it’s time for the United States to get in sync with modern science. Congress shouldn’t just reject additional funding for primate research—it should ban it altogether.