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Chimpanzees, Science, and Ethics

On February 6, Jon Cohen published “Entering a Wild Frontier: Testing Vaccines in Apes for Apes” on the AAAS website ScienceInsider. He describes how captive chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana will be given a vaccine against Ebola. Ebola is a virus that is killing wild apes. (It also kills humans.) The purpose of the research is to assess whether the vaccine is toxic, not whether it is effective. This is similar to a Phase 1 clinical trial for a new drug in humans.

This experiment gives me the opportunity to make two points.

1. Science. Just because this vaccine does not harm the six chimpanzees it is to be tested on does not mean it will be safe for all chimpanzees in the wild. As readers of this blog know, small differences between members of the same species can result in dramatic differences to perturbations such as vaccines and other drugs. The differences in environment alone could trigger genes that result in different outcomes between the two populations. In reality, I think that testing on the six captive chimpanzees will probably have good predictive value for the wild chimpanzees but once again we get back to the fact that genomes vary, even genomes of the same species, and these differences can be important.

    The vaccine was tested on monkeys in 2007 and was shown to protect them from Ebola but once again we are being asked to believe in trans-species extrapolation; that because the vaccine worked in monkeys it will also be safe and effective in apes, in this case the six chimpanzees being tested. All of this is about science and there can be, and probably have been, scientific discussions about giving this vaccine to the six chimpanzees and what the results will and will not mean.

    2. Ethics. Ebola is killing apes in the wild. No doubt about it. But is it ethical to use six sentient beings, against their will, to test a product that might help other sentient beings, in this case the wild chimpanzees? This is an ethical question. While the science can inform the ethical question, “Is the test likely to give valuable/predictive information and is it likely to be safe?” it cannot answer the ethical question.

    Here again we see a real-life example of an issue that has two separate and distinct aspects: science and ethics. Regardless of where you come down on the two issues, good science or bad, ethical or not, the fact remains that there are two issues.

    Americans For Medical Advancement (AFMA) is frequently criticized for not condemning animal experimentation on ethical grounds. That is fine. AFMA is not an animal protection organization and has never claimed to be. Half the board eats meat and half doesn’t. So, if people want to criticize us for not advocating for a specific issue, so be it. (The first death threat I ever received was from an anti-abortionist. He was mad because I was focusing on my issue not his issue.) AFMA’s position revolves around the fact that we think the science surrounding animal use is important to everyone, not just animal advocates, and therefore we will continue doing what we do.

    Life is complicated. Sometimes separating the variables is a wise course of action.


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