An inspection by the US Department of Agriculture in December found a number of problems at a Harvard Medical School research facility involving the handling, housing, and well-being of primates - including the death of one of the animals.
The report, posted online yesterday, details five citations at the New England Primate Research Center in Southborough. The death, which occurred after an animal escaped from its cage, was the second non-human primate death in 2011 at an animal facility operated by Harvard, and the second in two years at the Southborough center.
Last February, a primate died at a separate medical school animal facility when anesthesia was improperly administered. And in June 2010, a primate was found dead at the New England Primate Research Center after its cage went through a mechanical washer with the animal in it.
That prompted an October 2010 warning letter to Harvard Medical School from Elizabeth Goldentyer, eastern regional director of animal care at the USDA.
“This notice is being issued at this time as a serious warning that if you fail to comply with the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act in the future, this citation and all past and future documented violations will be used to justify a more severe penalty,’’ Goldentyer wrote.
Inspectors do not have the authority to issue fines, according to a USDA spokesman, and the new inspection report did not say whether fines would be issued.
Harvard Medical School said in a statement yesterday that it is committed to following regulations and requirements to ensure biomedical research is ethical.
“We take the USDA findings seriously and deeply regret the situation that led to this recent report,’’ the statement said. “The issues raised by the USDA were promptly corrected. We, working in tandem with new NEPRC leadership, are unwavering in our commitment to continuous quality improvement and to ensuring stringent compliance that enables us to exceed the highest standards of animal welfare and veterinary care.’’
In one of the new citations, a primate scheduled to undergo an imaging procedure escaped during transfer from its enclosure. It was caught with a net and underwent the imaging, but after it was returned to its cage, a staff member saw that the animal was not moving, and a veterinarian confirmed the animal had died. The death was reported to federal agencies.
“All animals should be handled by scientists, research technicians, and animal technicians as expeditiously and carefully as possible in a manner that does not cause behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort to ensure the health and well-being of the animals,’’ the report stated. “The research facility has taken appropriate steps to address and correct this item.’’
Several citations referred to the suitability of the enclosures where primates are housed. Problems noted included the conditions of some enclosures and whether primates had enough space.
The last citation was based on patterns of hair loss or unusual behaviors among several primates that suggested they were suffering psychological distress.
In all cases, the report stated that the inspector found no evidence that the unusual behaviors or appearances of the animals had been noted by staff.
The Harvard statement said that last summer, non-compliance issues were self-identified and voluntarily reported at the New England Primate Research Center.
“We recognized that these issues required significant review of our operations and engaged in a review that includes outside consultants as well as external veterinary peers at other institutions,’’ the statement said. “Our review identified a need for a reorganization of our scientific, administrative and veterinary leadership at the NEPRC, and we have begun this process by establishing interim leadership charged with strengthening oversight at the Center and with implementing the most rigorous standards and administrative procedures.’’
Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an animal protection organization focused on laboratory animals, said he would write to the USDA to urge that a fine be levied on the primate center.
Budkie said the federal agency’s 2010 warning letter needed to be followed up with more stringent disciplinary action.
“It’s very clear the actions the USDA has taken in the past do not or were not sufficient to bring the primate center into compliance with federal law,’’ Budkie said.