“A Dereliction of Duty”: NAVS responds to NASEM Primate Research Committee

Wildlife Monkey Portrait Khao Sak National Park

Earlier this month, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) committee released a report calling for increased government funding to boost the national supply of (in other words, to increase the breeding of) nonhuman primates (NHPs) for use in biomedical research. This is just the latest of many attempts by NHP researchers to increase funding for their experiments even though Congress and the public are increasingly eager to move on from this highly dubious, unethical approach to biomedical research.

The committee first convened publicly in April 2022 with a directive from Congress to examine the current landscape and future need for NHPs in biomedical research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

NAVS followed the committee’s work closely, attending all public meetings, commenting on our concerns with the committee’s composition, ethics considerations and panelist selection, and reviewing dozens of documents obtained via a records request. It quickly became apparent that throughout the information-gathering process there existed a number of missteps and missed opportunities that plagued the committee’s ability to accurately paint a picture of the current status and future needs of nonhuman primate model systems.

Of paramount concern is the committee’s clear bias, which was evidenced by the committee’s composition and the “topic experts” chosen to present during two public committee hearings. The 16-member committee included 12 scientists whose careers have been bolstered largely or in part by using NHPs in their research.

Similarly, the committee heard from 45 scientists and topic experts as part of their public information gathering process. Of those 45 experts, the careers of 38 individuals noticeably benefited from the use of NHPs in their work. As the committee chose to include and hear from almost exclusively those scientists who have a stake in maintaining NHPs as a primary biomedical research model, the writing was on the wall from the beginning for a report calling for increased NHP breeding and use. 

Nearly absent from committee and panelist membership were leaders in the field of new approach methodologies (NAMs), which are rapidly being developed to reduce and replace the use of animals in science. The exclusion of such leaders undoubtedly assures that the committee drafted their report without the information necessary to fully comprehend the breadth and depth of NAMs developments and how they might be used to reduce researcher’s reliance on NHPs in the future.

Instead, the committee chose to hear from the president of the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) and the Foundation for Biomedical Research (FBR). NABR is a pro-animal use lobbying organization that fights for the continued use of animals in science. The FBR focuses on similar work. The inclusion of opinions from a lobbyist representing both the NABR and the FBR in an information gathering session should give pause to decision makers working to form policy based on the committee’s report.

Also worthy of pause are gaps in vital information. As is acknowledged in the report, the lack of centralized data and reporting makes it impossible to accurately track the number of NHPs held and used for research purposes in the United States. NAVS strongly cautions all attempts to alter NHP breeding levels until an accurate picture can be painted of the animals already being bred and experimented on in the name of biomedical research.

Similarly absent from the report was information identifying areas in which NHP models have failed to provide advances for human health. Despite decades of NHP research, scientists have been unsuccessful in providing high level therapeutics and treatments for a host of ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke and various cancers. Failures of the NHP model, of which there are many examples, should weigh heavily in discussions on their future use and were completely absent from committee consideration and the resulting report.

Finally, NAVS feels that all pretense of impartiality was discarded when the committee declared that ethics would not be considered as part of the inquiry into the use of NHPs in biomedical research. When using animals in research, ethics must be the foundation of all discussions. To completely disregard ethics was a dereliction of duty of the committee and in doing so, they cast a shadow of doubt over the validity of all report findings.

The scientific robustness of NHP models has long been called into question, and our growing understanding of the inner lives of NHPs casts significant doubt on the ethical justifications for their use. Simultaneously, technological and methodological advancements appear to be bringing the era of NHP-dominated research to an end. To inadequately review these perspectives in favor of maintaining the status quo not only does a disservice to the scientific profession, but also threatens to harm the advancement of human-relevant models that are likely to provide superior insights and treatments for human health.  

Ultimately, NAVS hopes that Congress is able to see through this cherry-picked report and acknowledge it for what it is: propaganda to boost a failing research methodology.