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No more monkey business: Biotech industry shrugs at change in chimp status

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A new federal proposal to reclassify captive chimpanzees as endangered species is raising barely a shrug from the biopharmaceutical industry, where the use of chimps in medical research labs has been on the decline for years.

“Except in very special circumstances, there isn’t much of a need for chimps in research,” said Frankie Trull, founder and president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group representing drug and biotech companies, medical and veterinary schools, teaching hospitals, and contract research organizations.

“It’s not going to have a big impact on medical research.”

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Trull was reacting to a proposal by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to change the status of captive chimps under the Endangered Species Act. Thirteen years ago, the service established a “split listing,” designating wild chimps as endangered and chimps in captivity as threatened. That allowed them to be bought and sold and used in medical research.

Now the wildlife service has revisited the issue and determined the law permits no distinction between wild and captive chimps. Under its proposal, which it has opened for public comment, researchers would have to obtain special permits to use chimps in drug testing.

While chimps were used in research for drugs to treat the HIV and Hepatitis C viruses, researchers more recently have gravitated toward animal testing in mice, rats, guinea pigs, and zebrafish. “There seems to be an emerging consensus that chimpanzees and other great apes are no longer necessary for all or most forms of medical research,” said Dan Ashe, director of the wildlife service.

British anthropologist Jane Goodall, a leading proponent of the reclassification, said the move to a split listing was “a painful decision” back in 1990 and now can be rectified. She said chimps, including the thousands in captivity in zoos and primate research centers show “close bonds between family members,” with young chimps relying on their mothers for five years.

Goodall cited the “98 percent similarity in DNA between chimps and humans.”

A bigger issue for researchers at federally-designated primate centers in Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana will be finding the financial resources to relocate captive chimps formerly used in research to wildlife sanctuaries, according to Trull.

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