The chimpanzees behind the glass enclosures at Bioqual’s animal research lab in Rockville look up from swaying on their swings when a visitor enters and tap on the glass to get their attention.
The 64-square-foot enclosures house the animals in pairs or singly next to other enclosures so the animals can see and hear each other for interaction, said John C. Landon, CEO of Bioqual, which does animal testing for the federal government and other contractors.
But the chimpanzees also interact with Bioqual workers, who pass the enclosures on either side of a main hallway on their way to other parts of the facility.
Soon, however, the chimpanzees will be departing. With federal grant money running out as federal officials debate the usefulness, costs and ethics of the research, the lab is winding down its vaccine tests on the chimpanzees, which will be transported to another research facility or a chimp haven for former research animals.
“We will miss them greatly,” Landon said.
Groups such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Humane Society of America have called for the National Institutes of Health to end the use of chimpanzees and other primates for medical research. Meanwhile, a bill, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, sponsored in the House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown, also calls for an end to using chimps for research.
Landon disputes claims that the work is unnecessary, saying that vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B were developed through research with chimpanzees at Bioqual.
Landon also disputes claims from the advocacy groups that the chimpanzees are housed in violation of NIH policy and federal law prohibiting them being kept in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement of chimpanzees, a highly social animal, is seen as detrimental to their mental and physical health.
Landon, who allowed a Gazette reporter to visit the research facility but did not allow photographs to be taken, said the company always has treated its animals humanely. Picketers have surrounded the company in the past; he added that he has received death threats over the telephone at 3 a.m. from those opposed to the use of animals for research.
Anthony L. Cook, director of biology and medicines for Bioqual and co-chairman of the Executive Veterinary Committee, which oversees the health of the animals, said the only chimps kept singly in confinement are those who might pose a risk to other chimpanzees. But he said they are able to interact with their fellow chimps.
“Some of them don’t get along with others,” Cook said.
The physicians’ committee’s petition, which was filed May 31, cites NIH’s own documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.
On Aug. 26, 2010, NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare sent a letter to Bioqual saying the company was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act for not pairing primates together, and demanded an aggressive plan of correction.
“Bioqual has been blatantly flouting the law right under the federal government’s nose,” said John Pippin, a cardiologist and spokesman for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Chimpanzees are intelligent, social beings who deserve better than a life of solitary confinement punctuated with cruel, invasive procedures. And these experiments do nothing to advance human health.”
But Landon said the letter from the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare was in response to other primates, specifically monkeys, and not chimpanzees, and that the lab took action that rectified the situation. Further reviews have not resulted in any findings that required corrective action regarding the lab animals, Landon said.
“We worked very closely with OLA after the 2010 letter,” Landon said.
Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues with the Humane Society of the United States, said the chimpanzees need not only to be able to see and hear other chimps, but to be able to touch each other as well.
“I’m not going to say there’s never aggression [between chimps], but these facilities should have the expertise to make sure the chimps are paired accordingly to minimize that,” she said.
Bioqual provides research services for pharmaceutical companies and government labs in areas ranging from infectious diseases to cancer.
In December, the federal Institute of Medicine issued a report concluding the use of chimpanzees for experimentation was “largely unnecessary.”
Even before that, federal cuts already had led to research projects being cut and a phasing down of the chimpanzee program at Bioqual, Landon said. The facility currently has 15 but will move them out during the summer. The company will continue to house other animals, including Rhesus monkeys and spider monkeys.
In Congress, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, which originally was introduced by Bartlett, has 164 co-sponsors in the House and 15 sponsors in the Senate, but has not yet been taken up by a committee in either body. The act would phase out invasive chimpanzee experiments in the U.S.