Cover Story: Is Biomedical Testing on Primates Still Necessary?

On October 24, scientists from around the world will come to San Antonio to discuss how testing on monkeys might one day lead to an AIDS cure.

They'll be talking baboons, macaques, and vervets at the 30th Annual Symposium on Nonhuman Primate Models for AIDS, not chimpanzees. Once thought to be the key to finding a cure, chimpanzees proved to be worthless, but not until after the National Institutes of Health had instituted a breeding program in the mid-1980s that led to the current surplus of chimps languishing in labs.

But last year, the NIH decided to take about 200 retired chimps in Alamogordo, New Mexico, out of retirement and move them to San Antonio's Southwest National Primate Research Center.

The decision sparked such an outrage among animal welfare activists -- and some scientists -- that the NIH tasked a group called the Institute of Medicine to investigate whether continued research on federally owned chimps was necessary. Their conclusion, in general, was "no."

Yet 14 of the Alamogordo chimps had already been transferred to Southwest and green-lighted for further research; and in late September, 100 Alamogordo chimps -- while deemed ineligible for further testing -- were also approved for transfer to Southwest, where they will essentially be warehoused. The transfer was approved despite the fact that Southwest has a history of violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Whether you're in favor of primate testing or not, your tax dollars are supporting it. Your tax dollars are supporting the upcoming AIDS symposium, as well as Southwest's public relations campaigns aimed to convince the public how necessary and beneficial such testing is. But you aren't supposed to question the efficacy of the testing -- at least you aren't supposed to ask Southwest, whose director believes that even asking the question makes you an animal-rights zealot. When we tried to speak to the director, or anyone else at Southwest, we were told by their communications office that they'd been interviewed a lot lately and were too "burned out" to talk.

So there you go. Your money is good, but your questions aren't. You'll just have to take their word that this testing -- testing that led to a glut of warehoused, disease-infected chimps -- is actually going somewhere. This week's cover story, "Retired Lab Chimps Pressed Back Into Service," takes a look behind the publicly funded spin to try to understand just what our money is being used for.

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