TED Conversations

Matthew Kinsella


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Given that chimpanzees are endangered, is it ethical to use them in biomedical research?

Chimpanzees are distributed throughout Equatorial Africa, occurring from southern Senegal across the forested belt north of the Congo River to western Uganda and western Tanzania. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, current estimates for the wild population range from 150,000 to 250,000 individuals. The largest populations of chimpanzees occur in central Africa, mainly Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon. Sadly the populations that once habituated Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin, or Togo are no longer found.

One of the greatest threats to the long-term survival of chimpanzees and other great apes is habitat loss. Between 2000 and 2010 Africa lost over 3 million hectares of its forests. Much of this loss occurred within the chimpanzee range, including the equatorial forest belt. In 2007, the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s classification of chimpanzees satisfied the criteria for ranking as Endangered based on a projected future rate of decline of 50% in three generations (from 1970-2030).

On top of facing habitat loss by logging operations, illegal hunting, and disease, chimpanzees have to worry about being captured for use in biomedical research. Luckily the demand for chimpanzees has been diminishing because many scientists agree that they are no longer necessary for understanding most diseases today. Either they simply don’t prove useful or better alternatives exist. However one exception remains, Hepatitis C (spread by blood-to-blood contact). Today, an estimated 4 million people are infected by Hepatitis C in the United States, and at least 130 million worldwide. Around 350,000 people around the world die from Hepatitis C-induced liver failure each year. There is still no vaccine, and chimpanzees are the only known non-human animals capable of being infected by the virus. No other animal models exist.


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    May 16 2012: While a somewhat egocentrical view (yet speaking for all humans) and undoubtingly sad, I feel it would be unethical not to conduct biomedical research on animals particularly chimpanzees in hopes to treat the possible life threatening disease hepatitis C. Advances in medicine save millions of lives yearly, and many from new drug developments or treatments that could not have come about without biomedical testing. I believe anyone staunchly against this practice would change their opinion rather quickly if they themselves developed or contracted a disease that required biomedical testing- even if the species were in danger of extinction.

    Yet to play devil's advocate I believe we should also consider this dilemma from the view as soon to be scientists, or even from the view of the chimpanzee! With the chimpanzee species population nearing extinction I feel a fair compromise to please both sides of the argument can be met. While we invest money into curing Hepatitis C, potentially bettering the health of a humans and our society, we should allocate funds and energy to invest in the restoration of theirs. This could include protecting and restoring many of their natural habitats to pre-human interventions while safeguarding the threatened species through controlled propagation in the protected habitats, zoos, and of course in the wild.

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