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March 1996
AIDS and the Single Primate


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 severe 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 special report.

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 protest.

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.

Dangerous Transplants
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 imagine.

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 money.

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 AIDS.

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.


Excerpt 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-y
ear 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 of 1995.

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 that corner."

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 a cure.

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

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. — S. S.

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 95696-6269.

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