It’s time to retire primate experiments

The Hill


Last year, approximately 7,000 baboons, marmosets, macaques and other primates were confined and experimented on by the NIH. Unfortunately, primate research at the NIH is growing despite policies requiring the reduction and replacement of animal testing.

According to taxpayer watchdog White Coat Waste Project, between 2014 and 2018, the number of primates used for NIH research involving significant pain and distress that was alleviated increased by 35 percent. Even worse, the NIH’s use of primates in experiments involving unrelieved pain and distress increased by over 380 percent. As I’ve documented in my own research, on top of this physical harm, primates in laboratories endure immense psychological trauma. 

Current NIH primate research includes infecting monkeys with debilitating viruses like Ebola, addicting monkeys to alcohol and performing invasive experiments on monkeys’ brains. In one study the NIH has funded for the last decade, experimenters destroy areas of monkeys’ brains with toxic acid so they can not recognize faces.

As a psychologist, I’m particularly alarmed that the agency has spent nearly $19 million on this project even though we’ve known since the 1990s how such brain damage affects human facial recognition and related research can safely and ethically be performed in human volunteers.  

Sadly, this kind of cruel and unnecessary testing is the rule, not the exception. One Yale university professor awarded by the NIH estimates that 87.5 percent of biomedical research — especially animal testing — is “wasteful and inefficient.”

Even NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has long acknowledged the limitations of animal experiments, despite spending about half of his agency’s budget on the practice. In particular, Dr. Collins has stated, “The use of small and large animals to predict [drug] safety in humans is a long-standing but not always reliable practice in translational science….New cell-based approaches have the potential to improve drug safety prediction before use in patients.”

He also stated that, “The use of animal models for therapeutic development and target validation is time consuming, costly and may not accurately predict efficacy in humans.” 

This is why the NIH reports that over 95 percent of drugs that pass tests on primates and other animals fail in humans, with each failure representing a loss of $2 billion and more than a decade of work. 

These wasteful experiments and scientific failures, paired with growing opposition to animal experiments from a majority of Americans, make a compelling case for why bold action is needed to combat this problem at the NIH.

Additionally, while the NIH further entrenches itself, the Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to more closely scrutinize primate testing, including ending a nicotine addiction study on squirrel monkeys after criticism from Congress, White Coat Waste Project, countless advocates, and, scientists including Dr. Jane Goodall.

Thankfully, longtime primate advocate Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) successfully included landmark language in the NIH’s 2020 Appropriations bill directing the agency to develop a strategy and timeline for the reduction of primate experiments in favor of modern alternatives. As Rep. Roybal-Allard describes it, the proposal is “calling for more accountability and transparency in NIH efforts to reduce and replace cruel and unnecessary primate testing.” 

Anyone who cares about animal welfare, improving biomedical research, or cutting government waste can and should support efforts to reduce and replace the NIH’s monkey business. The animals’ lives and ours, depend on it. 

Stacy Lopresti-Goodman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., where her research focuses on the harms of experimentation and captivity on primates. She has presented her research at academic conferences including meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the International Primatological Society and American Society of Primatologists and has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Behavioral Sciences, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation and the Journal of Animal Ethics. Dr. Lopresti-Goodman also serves as a volunteer scientific adviser to the non-profit White Coat Waste Project.