On January 30 this year, the Yerkes Regional
Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia announced that a chimpanzee
had developed AIDS,
ten years after being infected with human HIV by Yerkes researchers.
Only two weeks later, on February 13, Yerkes announced that the chimp,
Jerom, has been put to death. The reason, according to Yerkes, was
and untreatable anemia. Before Jerom died, another chimpanzee, Nathan,
was injected with Jerom’s blood. Satya asked those
who are concerned with the issues surrounding AIDS and medical research
their opinions, and to comment on Jerom’s development of AIDS.
An essay by Steven Simmons, who has AIDS, forms the core of this
AIDS and Animal Research
By Steven Simmons
I am both an AIDS activist and an animal rights activist, two things
which in my mind go quite well together. I also have AIDS myself, which
makes it a very personal issue for me and has given me perspective on
the many sides of these issues and how they fit together. It’s
been my focus recently to attempt to bridge the gap that sometimes exists
between the AIDS community and the animal rights community — a
gap which is very unfortunate and has led to some conflict and real
misrepresentation of the issues we’re all concerned with.
There was a recent Associated Press poll which showed that animal rights
has really taken hold in the American conscience. The majority of people
surveyed agreed that it is always wrong, for example, to kill animals
for fur or to test cosmetics. Most even agreed with the statement that
animals have basic rights and that they deserve equal consideration
as humans. That’s a dramatic shift in opinion in the course of
just a few years and represents inroads the movement has made. There
remains, however, the issue of using animals for medical research, which
we have been much less persuasive about. In fact, many of our allies
or potential allies seem to steer clear of an animal rights position
on this particular issue; even progressive social activists like those
espousing gay rights, feminism, or environmental causes frequently part
company from us here.
We’ve already established that people are concerned about unnecessary
animal suffering and want it to be eliminated. Obviously, their support
for animal research is based on compassion. They believe that using
animals in this manner is alleviating more suffering than it’s
causing and that there’s no other way. So, it’s really important
when you’re debating this issue with someone to realize that people
want to do what’s best and do the greatest good for the most number
of beings involved.
I think one of the reasons that pro-animal research sentiment has remained
so strong in the public mind is because those of us who oppose it are
very often afraid to tackle this issue. To jump into the fray of this
debate is to take on those Nobel prize-winning doctors and those eminent
microbiologists who have lots of degrees and tell us that we don’t
know what we’re talking about and that scientific progress depends
on using animals. They use their status as experts to intimidate us
and limit debate. The fact is you don’t need a Ph.D to discuss
scientific issues or medical issues or to form opinions about them.
AIDS in the news
You’ve probably noticed in recent months that AIDS and animal
research have been in the news quite a bit. First of all, last December,
a man named Jeff Getty in San Francisco — who is suffering from
AIDS — received a baboon bone marrow transplant. The idea behind
this was that, since baboons who are infected with HIV don’t appear
to develop AIDS, they must have some kind of inherent resistance to
it. Since the bone marrow is a vital component of the immune system
then, went the reasoning, perhaps giving this AIDS patient baboon bone
marrow might create, in effect, a parallel immune system that would
fight the virus. The second story that made the headlines in February
was that scientists at Yerkes Primate Laboratory in Atlanta finally
reported they had caused one and possibly two chimpanzees to develop
AIDS. This was considered a breakthrough because for years they had
attempted to infect chimpanzees in particular with the virus but none
of them had actually become sick. According to the scientists, this
would now bring us closer to an animal model of the disease that would
further work in testing new treatments and vaccines.
For me what was more alarming than these two stories themselves was
the general support this kind of research has been receiving from the
AIDS community. In fact, when Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
(PCRM) came out opposing the baboon bone marrow transplant, the San
Francisco chapter of the group AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP)
issued a press release attacking Dr. Neal Barnard (PCRM’s director)
and PCRM. I was really quite shocked to hear this because, quite a few
years ago, when I was working for People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals (PETA), I organized a series of protests at the University of
Pittsburgh where a man had received a baboon liver transplant. A few
days after the procedure a hospital employee revealed that this man,
whose identity had been concealed by the hospital, was actually HIV+.
When we learned of this, we contacted ACT-UP in Pittsburgh and they
recognized this as a case of AIDS exploitation and joined us in the
The case with Jeff Getty was quite different from the Pittsburgh one.
Instead of concealing the patient’s identity, his doctors really
held him up at news conferences and made him a media figure. Getty himself
was a longtime AIDS activist in San Francisco who had fought very long
and hard for improved access to medical treatments for AIDS patients.
So when his doctors proposed this pioneering experiment with the baboon
bone marrow, it fit in with his desire to be a renegade and push the
envelope of science. Meanwhile, the scientific community was raising
some very serious concerns about this procedure. Last summer, a conference
was held by the Food and Drug Administration as they were considering
the experiment. Experts in immunology who testified at the conference
were in general agreement that this procedure was more likely to kill
Getty than to help him. This opposition only added to Getty’s
rising image as a hero to those living with AIDS and seemed to strengthen
his determination that he was going to go ahead with it. In the end,
it was really the emotional pleas of his family that led the FDA to
give the green light.
It’s also important when discussing this issue to put it in a
historical context. In this century about 35 animal to human transplants
have been attempted — everything from pig kidneys to chimpanzee
livers. Baboons have been the most recent source of organs for xenografts
or cross-species transplantation. Not a single one of these procedures
has ever been successful. In 1963, one person did live for about nine
months after receiving a chimpanzee kidney, but most patients have died
within a few hours or days. You may remember that, in 1984, Baby Fae
made headlines. She was an infant who received a baboon’s heart
and died about 20 days later. The first point to make is that they simply
do not work and there’s no evidence they ever will.
Furthermore, xenografts are very dangerous and there’s a whole
portion of the community that’s sounding an alarm about this topic.
This is because of the fact that many microbes that are pathogenic in
one kind of species are harmless in another, and vice versa. HIV itself
probably originated in the Rhesus monkey where it apparently causes
no immunodeficiency. Non-human primates we know carry many bacteria,
viruses, and parasites which are harmful or even deadly to humans. Included
among these are Y. pestis which is the bacteria which causes bubonic
plague as well as the deadly Hantaa and Ebola viruses. So the fact that
baboons are apparently resistant to HIV actually points to the greatest
danger about the procedure rather than to its potential benefit. Through
this kind of procedure, new illnesses may jump from the donor species
to the human population and cause epidemics that we can’t even
Then there’s also the issue of resources. Each xenograft operation
costs at least $300,000. That figure does not include the millions of
dollars allocated to research in this area: it’s just for the
operations themselves. Meanwhile, programs that we know save lives —
such as AIDS prevention programs, housing, and primary care —
go vastly underfunded. There are also many promising alternative treatments
not receiving any exploration because there aren’t the resources
available to study them. So each xenograft is really a cruel waste of
Finally, I think it’s important to look at the issue of informed
consent when we have this kind of human experimentation. As with any
hazardous medical procedure, Getty was required to sign an informed
consent document before he received the baboon bone marrow. These documents
state that you’re aware of the risks and also of the alternatives
available. Interestingly, Getty himself told the New York Times, "I
know this may kill me but I know I will die if I do nothing." Somehow
he had been convinced that he had exhausted every other option and that
this was his only hope. This is not unusual. In 1984, after the Baby
Fae incident, an independent review panel determined that there were
at least four other procedures that could have been tried to save that
child’s life and that the parents were never informed of these.
I think it’s really ludicrous for us to think that baboon bone
marrow really represents the greatest hope for people with late-stage
As for the other issue of the chimpanzees developing AIDS, we have to
question what this really means scientifically. According to the current
criteria [see sidebar], that simply meant he was infected with the HIV
virus (which we already knew) and that he was seriously immuno-compromised.
We have to wonder if we are really surprised that a chimpanzee who has
been living for at least a decade in a laboratory has a problem with
his immune system and whether we are sure that that is because he’s
infected with HIV. Of course there are hundreds of other chimpanzees
who have been infected with the virus for over a decade who are not
exhibiting any of the symptoms of AIDS.
What this brings us to is the conclusion that animals simply cannot
model human disease. Research in recent years, particularly in the fields
of psycho-neuro-immunology — which studies the interaction between
mind and body — has shown us that human illness is a very dynamic
process involving many factors. It’s been difficult enough simply
to create a similar chemistry in animals that we observe in humans.
But we will never be able to create the complex context in which this
illness arises and progresses. The reason that researchers claim we
need an animal model for this and other diseases is so they can test
new treatments without risking human lives. Yet we know that more than
half of the drugs approved every year — all of which have been
through extensive animal testing for both toxicity and efficacy —
are later pulled from the market because of unpredicted dangerous or
even lethal side effects in humans.
Curing or Alleviating AIDS
The primary focus of AIDS activist groups has been to speed the process
of drug approval in this country, and they’ve been very successful
in doing that. But the most obvious way to accomplish this would be
to eliminate the animal testing stage from the drug development process.
Not only would this hasten the accessibility of new drugs but it would
also free up millions of dollars of resources which could be directed
into more effective channels.
Finally, most animal rights activists are in agreement about the ethics
of this situation. It is simply wrong to use animals for research. While,
therefore, I think it’s important that we argue on scientific
grounds, there is still the basic ethical issue and I don’t think
we should back away from stating our position on that. I stated in a
recent editorial, that "even if xenografts, which are cross-species
transplants, were actually safe, effective, and economically feasible,
there would still remain the question of whether we have the right to
kill non-human beings for human beings. I value my life no more than
a baboon values his or hers. Fortunately, the facts do not force us
to make such complicated ethical judgments. Respect for all life can
only hasten scientific progress."
AIDS is a very emotionally charged issue. We’ve all seen ACT-UP
protests, and people are angry and caught up in the emotion. That can
be very intimidating in terms of challenging people on this issue. Of
course, I too am very personally involved in it: I have many friends
who are sick and I myself suffer from the disease. I want progress to
be made more than anything. I want this disease to be cured or managed.
That is the point we have to stick to: we are on the same side. It is
our respect for life and our compassion that has influenced us to have
these positions on these issues. The fact is this is not saving lives.
This is costing lives, and that is why it is wrong. Don’t ever
let yourself be backed into the corner of "Your dog or the boy."
It is simply not reality.
He suggests that readers write letters to the editor of your local papers.
Tell them that these procedures are dangerous, wasteful, and cruel.
Steven I. Simmons lives and works in Brooklyn.
of the Yerkes’ press release: February 13, 1996
The first animal to develop the clinical disease of Acquired Immune Deficiency
Syndrome (AIDS) as a result of infection with the human immunodeficiency
virus (HIV-1) was euthanized today.
The animal, a 15-year old Yerkes Primate Research Center chimpanzee named
Jerom, was humanely euthanized because recent medical tests, including
one conducted this morning, indicated that his anemia was becoming more
severe and untreatable. Anemia, which also occurs in people with AIDS,
results from the failure of the bone marrow to produce adequate number
of oxygen-carrying red blood cells ...
With Jerom’s death, Yerkes chimpanzees involved in AIDS research
totals 12. Thus far, none of these animals, all of which live in pairs
for social companionship, shows signs of AIDS. They will remain the core
of the AIDS research efforts with chimpanzees, since there are no immediate
plans to infect additional chimpanzees...
Although Jerom became persistently infected with HIV — his immune
system produced antibodies against the virus, and the virus was isolated
repeatedly from samples of his blood — at the time he was infected
over a decade ago, clinical signs of AIDS did not occur until late summer
In addition to anemia, the clinical signs have included chronic diarrhea
with intermittent episodes of severe, acute diarrhea, as well as a cough
and a low grade pneumonia, conditions which characterize many people with
AIDS. Prior to the development of these clinical signs, Jerom’s
CD4+ cells — which are infection-fighting cells of the immune system
— began declining progressively and were at critically low levels
when he was euthanized. Such progressive, severe declines in CD4+ cells
are a "classic marker" of AIDS in people. In addition, Jerom
had a large quantity of HIV in his blood. A "high viral load"
characterizes people in late stages of AIDS.
As a result of the severe anemia, Jerom had become less active and very
pale in the last several weeks, Dr. [Thomas R.] Insel [director of the
Yerkes Center] said. "In human patients, we know that there comes
a time when the individual with AIDS turns a corner, when the clinical
course becomes very severe and there are no more ‘ups’ and
it’s all ‘down,’ " he said. "Jerom had turned
Consideration was given to treating Jerom with AZT or other approved or
experimental anti-viral drugs developed for people with AIDS. "But
these are not cures for AIDS," explained Dr. Insel. "These drugs
could only prolong Jerom’s illness." ...
Steven Simmons responds: The decision not to test antiviral therapies
or potential vaccines on Jerom seems to be in direct conflict with the
earlier goals of the research program. Nathan, the chimpanzee who was
infected with HIV from a transfusion of Jerom’s blood, appears to
be developing similar symptoms. Does Yerkes plan to kill Nathan once they
diagnose him with full-blown AIDS? This action indicates a belief on the
part of the researchers that AIDS is totally untreatable and invariably
fatal, yet those are the people entrusted with the project of finding
For the full press release and any other information, contact Cathy Yarborough,
Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta, GA
30322. Tel.: 404-727-7709; Fax: 404-727-3108; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
The Shifting Definitions of AIDS
Over the years the definition of AIDS has changed and blurred quite significantly.
The term AIDS was coined before the discovery the HIV virus. It was simply
based on the observation of a group of young gay men who were becoming
very sick. After the discovery of the virus it was obvious that many people
have the virus without having AIDS, so these criteria were established.
For years, HIV+ simply meant that you were infected with the virus, while
AIDS or the term "full-blown AIDS" was used to indicate specific
opportunistic infections had taken place, such as pneumocystis pneumonia
or Kaposi sarcoma. A middle stage of ARC, or AIDS-Related Complex, was
used to describe a symptomatic stage between the two. Then a couple of
years ago the definitions again changed because of the development of
prophylactic treatments which prevent some of the life-threatening infections.
Once these became common, people could progress to a very advanced stage
of the disease without qualifying for the definition of AIDS. So the Centers
for Disease Control therefore determined that anyone who is HIV+ with
a T-cell count below 200/mm3 of blood now has AIDS. —
From Don Barnes, Director of Education, National Anti-Vivisection Society
After being challenged with three massive injections of the HIV-1 virus,
it took more than 10 years for Jerom to display the classic symptoms of
AIDS including a precipitous decline in CD4+ cells. Nathan, on the other
hand, developed similar symptoms within months of receiving a transfusion
of blood from Jerom.
Over 100 other chimpanzees have been infected with HIV-1; with these two
exceptions, chimpanzee immune responses have successfully warded off the
devastation of AIDS. How can this variance be explained? Did the HIV virus
Jerom contracted mutate into a particularly virulent form? Is there a
microbe present in Jerom’s blood which would work in conjunction
with the AIDS virus to cause his immune system to fail?
As a former animal researcher and now the Director of Education for the
National Anti-Vivisection Society, I fail to understand the excitement
generated within the biomedical research community over the development
of AIDS in these two chimpanzees. After all, the probability of any given
chimpanzee demonstrating a response similar to a human after contracting
HIV-1 is still less than one in 100, hardly a predictable "model"
for human AIDS. Further, our ignorance of differences between the immune
systems of chimpanzees and humans rules out a basic understanding of the
mechanisms affected by potential vaccines. If a candidate vaccine appeared
to protect other chimpanzees from developing AIDS, we would have no assurance
that these particular chimpanzees were not simply members of the larger
pool of animals who would not develop the disease in any case. Even Patricia
Fultz, the researcher who originally infected Jerom with HIV-1, stated
in Science, "I don’t think it will make any difference at all
on vaccine development." Perhaps equally as important, Dr. Fultz
doubts that chimps can illuminate human HIV pathogenesis.
AIDS is not a new disease, and has probably existed in Africa for generations,
failing to spread until technology provided many Africans the means of
transportation from their small communities to locations with higher population
density. But, AIDS is not the only virus to make the leap between primate
species. Ebola and Marburg are two similar viruses which have only recently
been identified as meeting these criteria, and at least one strain of
Ebola is rapidly lethal to humans. How many other lethal viruses remain
unidentified? How many are airborne, i.e., can be spread to others through
exhaled water droplets, as is one strain of Ebola? Can we even imagine
the devastation which would ensue given an airborne AIDS virus?
In my opinion, the excitement in the biomedical research community should
be replaced by trepidation and caution. Ideally, such caution would include
an ethic of compassion for other creatures, for an increasing number of
people are becoming appalled at the callousness we show for other life
forms on our planet. The chimpanzee is our closest primate "cousin,"
sharing 98.6% of our DNA. What kind of creatures are we, to become excited
at our success in infecting them with a painful and deadly disease?
To contact NAVS write to: NAVS, 53 West Jackson Boulevard, Chicago, IL
60604. Tel.: 312-427-6065.
From Nedim C. Buyukmihc, President of the Association
of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR)
The AVAR is opposed, in principle, to all experiments in which the individual
being used is unconsenting and in which there will be inflicted significant
harm (very broadly defined) or death. Therefore, the AVAR is opposed to
the experiments on chimpanzees for the purposes of trying to understand
AIDS. This opposition is primarily on the basis that it is morally wrong
to subject the chimpanzees to this, particularly when they are not responsible
for the syndrome being present in human beings. Furthermore, although
there may be similarities with the human being, there certainly also are
dissimilarities which render any conclusions made highly suspect when
there is an attempt to extrapolate them to the human being.
The AVAR is very sensitive to the plight of human beings who are afflicted
with AIDS. Our opposition to research which harms or kills other beings
in order to understand AIDS, even if it were scientifically realistic,
is not a demonstration of a lack of empathy for these people. Instead,
it is a statement of compassion for all living beings. There can be no
moral justification for the harming or killing of one group of beings
just because they are different from us. Their lives are no less important
to them than are the lives of the human beings in question.
To contact AVAR, write to: AVAR, P.O. Box 6269, Vacaville, California