“We are not rats and we are not even other primates,” Collins said, but NIH is now using more of both
WASHINGTON D.C.–– Francis S. Collins, who both de-emphasized animal research and presided over expanded animal research during his 12 years as director of the National Institutes of Health [NIH], on October 5, 2021 disclosed to Washington Post reporters Lenny Bernstein and Carolyn Y. Johnson that he intends to retire from the position by the end of the year.
Collins confirmed his intention to retire at an October 6, 2021 media conference.
“Collins, a 71-year-old physician-geneticist, will return to his lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health,” Bernstein and Johnson wrote. “He is the longest-tenured director of the Bethesda, Maryland-based NIH,” founded in 1887, “which he ran through the Obama and Trump administrations and into the first year of the Biden presidency.”
Collins’ successor must be nominated by U.S. President Joseph Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which is currently evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Money & influence
Collins is credited with successfully lobbying Congress for budget increases that have raised NIH spending from $30 billion in his first year as director, to $41.3 billion currently. Collins has also appointed most of the current heads of the 27 NIH member institutes and research centers.
“A born-again Christian who wrote a book about reconciling science and religion,” recalled Bernstein and Johnson, “Collins came into his job in 2009 facing many questions — and some sharp criticism — about whether a man of faith should lead a data-driven research institution that includes world-renowned scientists among its 18,000 employees.
Despite Collins’ evangelical Protestant affiliation, observed Jocelyn Kaiser for Science Insider, he “has supported studies using human embryonic stem cells and fetal tissue—although fetal tissue work faced restrictions under Trump.”
Both human embryonic stem cells and fetal tissue are used in experiments formerly done using animals, chiefly nonhuman primates. The use of human embryonic stem cells and fetal tissue are bitterly opposed by anti-abortionists.
“The tribes have formed their views”
“Now Collins is trying to get people of faith to wake up to coronavirus realities,” wrote Bernstein and Johnson. “He will step down at a time when such questions have given way to the politicization of science and sometimes violent disagreement about even well-proved medical facts.”
Said Collins himself, “Every issue, the polarization gets deeper and deeper. The tribes have formed their views, and it’s very hard to see how we step back from that.”
Among the most polarized issues involving the National Institutes of Health when Collins was appointed by former U.S. President Barack Obama was––and had long been––the use of animals in biomedical research. Almost every previous NIH director had vigorously defended animal experimentation.
Collins’ immediate predecessor, however, Elias Zerhouni, broke sharply from precedent during his tenure as NIH director, from 2002 to 2008.
“We all drank the Kool-Aid”
Explained Zerhouni in a July 2013 address to his former NIH colleagues, “We have moved away from studying human disease in humans. We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included.”
Because of the relative ease of doing studies using genetically modified mice, Zerhouni warned, disease researchers had become excessively reliant on animal data.
“The problem is that it hasn’t worked,” Zerhouni said. “It’s time we stopped dancing around the problem. We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.”
In February 2008, under Zerhouni, the National Institutes of Health, the National Toxicology Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Toxicology Program signed a memorandum of understanding to begin developing the new methods.
“We propose a shift”
Explained Collins, then heading the National Human Genome Research Institute, “We propose a shift from primarily in vivo animal studies to in vitro assays, in vivo assays with lower organisms, and computational modeling for toxicity assessments.
“Historically,” Collins elaborated, “toxicity has always been determined by injecting chemicals into laboratory animals, watching to see if the animals get sick, and then looking at their tissues under the microscope. Although that approach has given us valuable information, it is clearly quite expensive, it is time-consuming, it uses animals in large numbers, and it doesn’t always predict which chemicals will be harmful to humans.
“Besides,” Collins added, “we are not rats and we are not even other primates.”
Chimp use found “unnecessary”
Collins emphasized doing cellular level research, because, he said, “After all, ultimately what you are looking for is, does this compound do damage to cells? Can we, instead of looking at a whole animal, look at cells from different organs?”
After succeeding Zerhouni as NIH director, Collins requested a National Institute of Medicine review of the biomedical research use of chimpanzees. The review found that the use of chimps in studies of HIV-AIDS, malaria, and most areas of neuroscience was unnecessary.
Collins then announced that “Effective immediately, the NIH will not issue new awards for chimpanzee research,” and would more closely evaluate 37 ongoing chimpanzee research projects.
“We estimate that 50% of them would not meet the Institutes of Medicine criteria,” Collins added.
“No justification” for keeping chimps in labs
In June 2013 Collins pledged that about 350 chimpanzees would be retired from NIH laboratories to the federally funded Chimp Haven sanctuary near Shreveport, Louisiana. Then, in November 2015, Collins announced that the last 50 chimps in NIH custody would be retired to Chimp Haven, because, he said, “There is no justification” for keeping them in labs.
Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2009 that there was no longer any biomedical research need for the use of random-source cats and dogs, meaning cats and dogs obtained either directly from animal shelters or intermediary dealers.
The National Institutes of Health, under Collins, discontinued funding random-source cat acquisition effective after October 1, 2012, and discontinued funding random-source dog acquisition effective after October 1, 2014.
72.7% increase in animal use
But Collins’ reputation for curtailing use of animals in biomedical research took a hit in the February 25, 2015 online edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals investigators Justin Goodman, Alka Chandna, and Katherine Roe.
Goodman, Chandna, and Roe evaluated “use of all vertebrate animals by the top institutional recipients of National Institutes of Health research funds over a 15-year period,” they reported, finding that, “These data show a statistically significant 72.7% increase in the use of animals at these U.S. facilities during this time period—driven primarily by increases in the use of mice.”
Goodman, the lead author, is now vice president of advocacy and public policy for the White Coat Waste Project.
“Retirement” in slow motion
Meanwhile, not all of the federally owned chimpanzees whom Congress and Collins meant to go to Chimp Haven actually got there. Only seven chimps went from NIH labs to Chimp Haven in all of 2015.
The delay, wrote Washington Post environment reporter Daryl Fears in February 2016, came about because, “When lawmakers approved the Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance and Protection of 2000, which designated Chimp Haven as a federal sanctuary and provided millions of dollars to the National Institutes of Health to care for retired chimps, they stipulated that no [federal] funds could be used to expand the facility.”
At least 24 federally owned chimpanzees died, according to Fears’ count, before expansion funds for Chimp Haven became available.
“Taxpayers are not getting bang for their buck”
But by then the pace of NIH chimp retirement was further slowed by the deteriorating condition of many of the chimps themselves.
The Government Accountability Office reported in April 2016 that 382 chimps remained in NIH laboratories, as of January 2016. Among them, 154 chimps had been infected with HIV or hepatitis; 261 chimps suffered from other forms of chronic illness; and 144 were considered “geriatric.”
Collins in October 2019 announced that 44 chimps who were previously scheduled to be transferred from the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico to Chimp Haven would instead remain in Alamogordo because they had become too old to move safely.
Observed the Albuquerque Journal on January 4, 2021, “The National Institutes of Health web site says it costs you, the taxpayer, $130 a day to house one chimp in Alamogordo, where there are no trees or wide-open spaces, compared with $35.65 a day at Chimp Haven. Taxpayers are not getting bang for their buck, and sentient beings are suffering for it.”
HSUS & the CHIMP Act
The Humane Society of the U.S. on January 14, 2021 joined with Animal Protection of New Mexico in suing the National Institutes of Health in the Federal District Court of Maryland. The case is apparently still pending.
“Our lawsuit,” jointly explained HSUS president Kitty Block and Sara Amundson, president of the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund, “would compel NIH to abide the Chimpanzee Health Improvement Maintenance and Protection (CHIMP) Act,” the HSUS-backed bill which in 2000 simultaneously mandated chimpanzee retirement but blocked use of funds to expand retirement facilities.
The CHIMP Act was passed, before either Zerhouni or Collins headed the NIH, and before either Block or Amundson were in their present positions, amid a political struggle between animal advocacy organizations, who wanted the federally owned chimps to be retired to nonprofit sanctuaries beyond NIH control, and the NIH itself.
The NIH wanted to keep the chimps & the money
The NIH argued that it should manage the chimp retirement facilities and should receive the funding apportioned for chimp retirement.
The NIH also wanted to retain the ability to recall chimpanzees from retirement at will, for further use in experiments.
By the time CHIMP Act cleared Congress, toward the very end of the 2000 legislative session, the NIH had almost everything it wanted.
But HSUS, the Animal Welfare Institute, primate anthropologist Jane Goodall, and Nonhuman Rights Project founder Stephen M. Wise, among others, applauded what they termed a political “victory.”
Argued Block and Amundson in their jointly written January 14, 2021 statement, without reference to the defects in the CHIMP Act, “The NIH argument that the chimps would be at risk in the event of a transfer just doesn’t make sense. Of the hundreds of chimpanzees of all ages and health conditions who have moved from laboratories to Chimp Haven, not one has died during transport.”
Nothing good happening for monkeys
Even less has been accomplished toward retiring other non-human primates from laboratory use.
“According to a National Institutes of Health report released in 2018,” Science news editor David Grimm reported in December 2019, “demand for research monkeys will continue to rise; the number used in experiments reached a record high [75,825] in 2017, even though the total number held in U.S. labs has declined slightly over the past decade.”
That was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, stimulating further demand for monkeys to be used in experiments.
Mice, rats, birds & fish
Overall, during Collins’ tenure as NIH director, Zerhouni’s, and the tenures of their early 21st century predecessors, the numbers of mice, rats, birds, and fish used in federally funded research and testing has apparently increased exponentially, explained University of California at San Francisco researcher Larry Carbone, DVM, in the January 12, 2021 edition of Scientific Reports, a publication of Nature.com.
“Rats and mice comprised approximately 99.3% of mammals at these representative institutions,” Carbone found.
“Extrapolating from 780,070 Animal Welfare Act-covered mammals in 2017–2018,” Carbone deduced that about “111.5 million rats and mice were used per year in this [two-year] period,” with no indication of a subsequent reduction.