By PAUL C. BARTON
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Numerous West Coast lawmakers support legislation that would prohibit "invasive" medical research on apes, creatures considered sensitive and amazingly intelligent by wildlife groups.
Called the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, it also has the backing of many animal rights groups and celebrities, as well as organizations such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
But other scientific groups oppose it, saying it would set back research on diseases that afflict humans and apes.
The House and Senate versions define great apes as any chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, orangutan or gibbon. The bills describes apes in general as "highly intelligent and social animals."
The legislation defines "invasive research" as any research "that may cause death, injury, pain, distress, fear, or trauma to a great ape." Violators would be subject to up to $10,000 in civil penalties.
The bills gained cosponsors -- now totaling a bipartisan mix of 163 in House and 14 in the Senate -- following a National Institute of Medicine report in December said that research on apes was scientifically unnecessary.
They also come at a time when there are about 1,000 great apes housed in laboratories in the United States, about half of whom belong to the federal government. The legislation calls for them to be released to sanctuaries, producing a savings for the government -- although it gives no estimate.
But the Humane Society of the United States has estimated that housing the apes in government labs costs $20 million to $25 million a year.
Supporting the legislation are 28 House members from California, including Reps. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs; Sam Farr, D-Carmel; and Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento.
"Congresswoman Bono Mack supports the bill for both ethical and financial reasons," spokesman Ken Johnson said. "Historically, chimpanzees have been poor models for human diseases such as HIV, AIDS, cancer, and heart disease. NIH has already signaled a movement away from using chimpanzees by permanently halting their breeding for invasive research. We simply cannot justify spending tens of millions of dollars a year to warehouse chimpanzees, given this long history of failures. And if chimpanzees aren't advancing human health, then why are we putting them through this ordeal."
Farr spokesman David Beltran added, "He (Farr) supports the protection of wildlife."
Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has scheduled an April 24 hearing on the Senate version in the Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs.
From Oregon, cosponsors include Sen. Jeff Merkley and Reps. Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer, all Democrats.
Merkley spokesman Julie Edwards said: "Chimpanzees are one of the most highly developed species and deserve respectful treatment and care. Medical advances have made invasive experiments on these remarkable animals significantly less valuable for research purposes. Ending this research and allowing the chimps to live out their lives in sanctuaries is not only the humane thing to do -- it also saves money."
The lead sponsors are Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Bartlett, who holds a doctorate in human physiology, has taught at medical schools and participated in NASA research involving apes. He has been trying since 2009 to get the ape-protection measure passed.
The United States is the only country besides Gabon that still allows invasive research on apes, according to the Jane Goodall Institute. The European Union enacted a ban last year.
"Despite all we know about chimps, their amazing minds, their rich emotional lives -- and evidence that they are poor models for study of human disease, they continue to be used in painful and invasive experiments," the institute says on its website.
Bartlett is hoping the National Institute of Medicine report proves to be a turning point in getting consideration of the bills.
"It's the strength of that report that encouraged so many members to get on the bill," said Lisa Wright, press aide to the Maryland representative.
Another reason Bartlett is hopeful, she said, is that many of the cosponsors of his bill are members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill has been assigned to that panel's subcommittee on health.
But the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology said in a statement that passage "would not only eliminate research that could treat human disease, it would also prohibit important research into therapies that may benefit the wild great ape populations being ravaged by disease. Thousands of wild chimpanzees and gorillas have died from Ebola, which has led to a 32 percent decline in world populations. Research on captive chimpanzees has led to the development and testing of an Ebola vaccine for use in wild chimpanzees and gorillas."
It added that the definition of invasive is so broad that it would eliminate many procedures that are routine for humans, such as blood sampling and imaging studies involving sedation. And standards for research on apes, it said, already require humane treatment.
Further, the federation said, releasing to apes to sanctuaries does not necessarily guarantee humane treatment because many lack trained medical staff. Most of the apes that the bill calls for releasing "will be aged and sick."
Gannett Washington Bureau