Image Source: Monkeys in the NewsMonkeys In the News has alerted me to an Associated Press story today about a Nevada research lab, part of Charles River Laboratories, that is one of the world's largest suppliers of clinical and laboratory research services to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The company was fined after thirty monkeys died as the result of not following proper procedures. While it is clear that there are necessary medical reasons for using primates in invasive experiments, I think everyone can agree that strict regulations need to be put in place to prevent negligence or abuse.
A series of errors began when a repair technician left the heater in the "ON" position at 8:20 a.m. An alarm three minutes later warned the temperature in the primate room had risen to an unsafe 84 degrees, but no one noticed it, a Department of Agriculture report shows. Another alarm went undetected nearly two hours later.
It wasn't until 12:30 p.m. that lab personnel found 30 dead monkeys. Surviving monkeys were moved to a cooler location and given fruit; two later had to be put down.
Workers quickly opened the doors to circulate air and gently sprayed down the monkeys with a hose, according to a government report. It's not known how hot it got in the quarantine room.
It wasn't the only problem for the company.
Another monkey died after going through a cage washer last year. In 2007, Agriculture Department reports show two monkeys at the now-closed Sparks lab had fingers amputated after they were caught in the wiring of their cages while being moved, and a third monkey suffered a cut to the tip of its tail.
In addition, the former director of laboratory sciences at the Sparks lab has filed a civil lawsuit accusing the company of mistreating research animals, falsifying records to cover up the abuse and firing him in October 2007 for complaining about it.
The AP story goes on to say that, according to Agriculture Department records, Charles River Laboratories is one of the largest violators involving negligence in animal deaths nationwide. Charles River had sales of $1.2 billion in 2009 and reportedly housed nearly 10,000 primates nationwide in 2008. Under existing legislation, as part of the Animal Welfare Act, violators are required to pay a fine of $10,000 per violation. The AP reports that the lab where the monkeys died in Nevada was fined only $14,000 based on this and a separate incident. The Animal Welfare Act was amended in 2008 which increased the fine from $2,500.
Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, co-authored the amendment raising the fines in 2008 and has been urging USDA to fully exercise its authority under the law ever since.
"I increased the penalties for Animal Welfare Act violators from $2,500 to $10,000 in 2008 for one reason: Serious violators of the Animal Welfare Act should be punished more severely," he said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
My own view, which I've stated previously is that we should eliminate all testing on Great Apes as soon as possible as proposed under the bipartisan House Bill HR 1326 The Great Ape Protection Act that is currently before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. We should also conduct a review on the use of primates in general, the same way that the European Union has been engaged in for the last couple of years (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here).
I think it's only fair to point out that when this incident happened Charles River notified the USDA immediately, and after investigating what happened fired one employee and disciplined another, presumably the employees who should have responded when the alarms went off. Charles river have also changed their procedures to make sure this doesn't happen again.
Even in the best systems people screw things up, and when this happens those responsible should be punished (if appropriate) and steps taken to make sure the accident doesn't happen again. Charles River appear to have both punished the staff members responsible and taken steps to improve their procedures, I wouldn't be surprised if the relatively low fine reflects USDA satisfaction with the way CR responded to this incident, a single incident which accounts for over 90% of the accidental primate deaths at CR in the past couple of years.
Looking at this story I can only say that I wish some hospitals and social services departments would respond as promptly and efficiently to accidents and negligence.
I also note that you didn't quote the part of the report which states that:
"The company denied the allegations and said the worker was fired because he made derogatory and sexual comments to women."
Could it be that an employee fired for sexually harassing female staff might just be motivated by something other than a desire to tell the truth? At least security at Charles River is good, otherwise I guess we'd be reading another report of someone going postal.
As to the EU, well that debate appears to be coming to the conclusion that non-human primate research is still vital to many areas of research and should continue, certainly the EU parliament thinks so. The reason why the USA is the last major country to have research chimpanzees is because they are very expensive to house and researchers don't want to use then except for a very small number of diseases (e.g. Hepatitis C) where they still play a vital role. In most other countries with much smaller research sectors maintaining colonies of chimps for research is simply not a practical option. Research on chimps ended in the UK a decade before it was effectively banned, and the situation was the same in other Eurpoean states. It's very easy to ban something that no-one is doing.
I don't like seeing chimps used for invasive research, and obviously I believe that they should only be used as a last resort when no other animal or in-vitro method would be appropriate, and it wouldn't be possible to do the research on human volunteers. What I'm not prepared to do is to say to people living with HepC that scientists studying the disease will no longer be able to use one of the most valuable research resources they have, are you?
Thanks for bringing attention to this--always such interesting posts. How you maintain this blog, write for HP, and get anything done for your doctorate is beyond me.
@dusty: You forgot to include raising an infant. Thanks. Writing for folks like yourself is one of things that keeps me going. You've got some great stuff on your blog as well.
@Mike B: I don't know what the whistleblower's motivation was (and neither do you). In combination with the documented violations of the Animal Welfare Act I would think an independent investigation is necessary, wouldn't you?
What I'm not prepared to do is to say to people living with HepC that scientists studying the disease will no longer be able to use one of the most valuable research resources they have, are you?
I'm not sure all HepC sufferers would be pleased to know about the cost that research to cure their disease has on other sentient beings. I think they'd be happy to know about alternative models.
Charles River Labs is one of the largest violaters involved in negligence in animal deaths? Who knew.
I wept loudly over this blog post while eating my Big Mac. Cows are delicious, and will nourish us and make us strong for our long struggle against the evil, evil people who are hurting primates who are just like slaves, or children. This all makes me feel so much better about myself than all that blather about racism & sexism & death threats & violence against animal researchers & whatever you read on some of these Scienceblogs. That stuff is a downer.
EMJ, I'm well aware of these other animal (and in vitro) methods) but they are not close to replacing chimpanzees yet, as the paper you cite points out:
"This work provides a clear foundation upon which we can now begin to construct an animal model for the uniquely human pathogen,â says Rice. âThis is only a first step but in terms of creating an animal model for hepatitis C, itâs a big leap forward."
Good work, but still early days.
CR have delt with the problem, that's the point!
Hep C is a pretty prevalent and devastating disease. I doubt many who have benefited from diagnosis and treatment would care if some psychopath shot a bunch of chimps in the head, if it meant not dying from cirrhosis.
Thankfully, research animals are not routinely tortured, and animal welfare is actually a priority for those who do such work.
@PalMD: This is a difficult issue, I'm not denying that. I'm also fully aware that research animals are not routinely tortured (I worked in a neuroscience laboratory for a year myself). However, there are legitimate concerns about using chimpanzees as models for invasive medical research. Some of these concerns I've addressed previously, others I haven't. You may find this paper in the Journal of Medical Primatology of interest. The author reviewed more than a hundred chimpanzee HCV studies and found:
troublesome questions presented by some of the reviewed articles, including statistical validity, repeatability, and biological relevance of this model.
As I see it, the issue has moved beyond the question of if medical experimentation should be banned on Great Apes, but when that will take place. It may happen the same way as the earlier commenter discussed about similar research in the UK; its use may dwindle and there would no longer be any resistance to passing legislation. Or it may be that Congress and the general public decide that the value to research does not justify its continued use. I think we will see research into alternative models increase as this debate continues and I welcome that.
EMJ, that review was written by an ARA and rather surprisingly for what was supposed to be an objective overview of chimpanzee HepC research somehow managed to miss just about every important HepC paper that involved the use of chimpanzees. Go figure!
Charles River have been the subject of several independent investigations by the USDA, you might not like their conclusions but that's not the point. Think of it like hospitals, not every surgical error or patient death due to infection/complications requires a full independent investigation. Quite often an investigation by the institution itself or regulator is enough to put the problem right.
What's going on here is an attempted witch hunt, and it's not pretty.
... sort of. The post I'm pointing to is not about these monkeys, but about the broader issue.
PAL, no one should be denying that the research that leads to progress with horrid diseases is important. Well,no one reasonable. But you need to understand that the over the top statements about the horrors suffered by the bunnies and the cute monkeys are true and not true in a very similar way that your statement about Hep C.
It is important that the conversation be held at a somewhat more productive level.
@MikeB: You're going to have to do better than that. The Journal of Medical Primatology is peer-reviewed and geared primarily to biomedical scientists who use primates as research models. For you to assert that the author is an animal rights activist and that (somehow) he was able to slip it by these researchers unawares is pretty ludicrous.
A quick addendum to my last, as yet unpublished, comment. I realise now that I had confused the JMP study wiith another commentary that I can't find now, probably something I read on an AR website sometwhere a few months ago.
I have no idea if the Bettauer is an AR supporter, he appears to be a consultant of some sort, but the involvement of HSUS in the study is clear.