Harvard Medical School suspended new experiments at its New England Primate Research Center after a cotton top tamarin monkey died Sunday. It was the fourth monkey to die there under questionable circumstances in less than two years.
While the incident is still being investigated, the elderly monkey did not have a water bottle in its cage, and the absence of water probably contributed to its death, a Harvard official said yesterday.
The monkey was euthanized Sunday, the same day the Department of Agriculture made public an inspection report that revealed three serious episodes of monkeys being endangered at the Southborough facility in December and January, including the death of a dehydrated monkey. The agency cited Harvard for three violations of animal welfare regulations, for which the medical school could be fined.
Three of the deaths have occurred since October, despite a change in the center’s leadership the previous month after a comprehensive review found evidence of insufficient oversight and gaps in following basic procedures.
After returning from an hourslong visit to the primate center yesterday, Dr. Jeffrey Flier, Harvard Medical School’s dean, said that Sunday’s death was “utterly shocking’’ and that immediate actions are being taken to protect animals.
New experiments have been suspended immediately, and a worker involved in the care of the monkey was placed on administrative leave, he said in an interview. Teams of supervisors and veterinary staff have been making rounds of the entire facility, which includes multiple buildings. They are checking on each animal and each cage, assessing the monkeys’ health, and food and water status, and looking for other issues that could affect the animals’ welfare.
That level of oversight will continue, Flier said, until leadership is satisfied that such intense scrutiny is no longer necessary or new procedures are developed. He is also in the process of establishing a committee including outside specialists, who will review the policies, operations, and management of the facility.
“The things that have been taking place at the primate center, including the most recent adverse event, are matters that I take with the utmost seriousness as the dean of Harvard Medical School,’’ Flier said. The problems “are going to be fixed. My involvement in this has been very substantial over the last year, but it is getting raised to a higher level in terms of my personal direct engagement.’’
Harvard self-reported the death to an Agriculture Department inspector, according to David Sacks, a spokesman for the USDA.
“The inspector will pay a visit to the facility sometime in the very near future to look into the matter and document what happened,’’ he said in an e-mail. “At that point, this latest unfortunate incident will be added onto the current investigation of Harvard’s research facilities.’’
In an interview with the Globe before the latest death, Harvard Medical’s executive dean for research, Dr. William W. Chin, said problems emerged after the 2010 death of a monkey. That animal was discovered dead on the floor of its cage after it had gone through a cleaning system, although it was found to have died of natural causes before the cage was cleaned. He said those issues were being addressed through the changes in the center’s leadership in September, the implementation of new systems and procedures, and the formation of a team focused on training, audits, and a continuous review process.
Asked yesterday why those changes had not prevented the latest death, Flier said, “My sense is whatever the procedures are that we put in place, they weren’t good enough to prevent this event, so we are going even further . . . [in] an attempt to be more fail safe.’’
The new incident was also linked to the availability of water, but the December death was due to employees’ failure to notice a malfunctioning watering system. In the newest case, it was the absence of a water bottle in a cage.
In an e-mail addressed to Chin and shared with the Globe, Ronald Desrosiers, the former director of the primate center, objected to the idea that the center’s problems stem from past leadership. He said that the majority of the issues have occurred after the medical school leadership intervened in the primate center.
“Except for the 2010 cage washer incident, NEPRC had an absolutely stellar record . . . during my 12 years of leadership and we were the model of what an animal research institution should be. Whatever relatively minor issues there were in 2011, they could have and would have been adequately taken care of by the experienced leadership that was in place,’’ Desrosiers wrote. “The recent transgressions since my departure in September of 2011 have nothing to do with the previous leadership.’’
Flier said the new leadership team was steering the primate center in the right direction. He said there were problems, which went back in time, that were now being addressed. He said he took the unusual step to disclose the death before a federal inspection or report of the event is complete because of its seriousness.