SAEN LogoIn complaint to federal agency, former vet says UTMB animal mistreatment widespread
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Please levy the MAXIMUM FINE against the University of Texas, Medical Branch, Galveston for their blatant disregard of the Animal Welfare Act when their ineptitude allowed many monkeys to die painfully without being euthanized. Their utter disregard for the animals and the Animal Welfare Act CANNOT be tolerated and MUST be punished to the fullest extent of the law.


In complaint to federal agency, former vet says UTMB animal mistreatment widespread
By Marissa barnett,, December 9, 2015

A former top Galveston National Laboratory veterinarian says findings in a harsh federal audit on the treatment of monkeys infected with a deadly virus may be only the tip of the iceberg for animal welfare issues at the lab.

Statements by the medical branch that scientists were not expressly required by research guidelines to monitor the monkeys overnight are a fabrication, Brian Gordon, former attending veterinarian and head of the animal care program at the laboratory, said in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It is my professional opinion that the (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) audit is the smoking gun indicating a much larger problem concerning the animal welfare in the GNL,” Gordon said in a Sept. 6 complaint to the agriculture department.

The institution is working with the federal agencies about how to “best proceed with the observation of animals in high-biocontainment areas, while providing a safe working environment for our scientists and researchers,” medical branch spokesman Raul Reyes said.

Reyes deferred to two letters between the institution and federal regulators related to the complaint.

Improvements and enhancements

An official for the medical branch in a Nov. 16 letter to the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare about the complaint said the institution had made improvements and continued to make enhancements related to animal care program.

“Certainly improvements have been and will continue to be made with respect to animal welfare, such as addressing increased observations, a more rigorous IACUC protocol review process for Category E studies, and policy enhancements,” Toni D’Agostino, associate vice president for research administration at the medical branch, said in the letter.

But the medical branch did not offer a specific plan for more frequent animal monitoring.

24/7 vet care

In a Nov. 19 response to the medical branch, Axel Wolff, director of the compliance division at the animal welfare office, acknowledged items that had been addressed in the letter and during a meeting at the medical branch.

But Wolff told the university there were at least 16 issues that still needed to be addressed, including having veterinarian access to animals at all times.

“Veterinary access to animals in the BSL4 biocontainment area must be available at all times when necessary,” Wolff wrote.

“Arrangements must be made to access animals in BSL4 24 hours per day, seven days per week for emergency care as well as for research related purposes.”

The audit

A scathing audit performed by agencies of the National Institutes of Health reported “serious animal welfare issues” in research performed by the laboratory in its study of the Marburg virus, which is related to Ebola.

The uncharacteristically harsh federal report likely would have remained private were it not for a whistle-blower who tipped off a national research watchdog group Stop Animal Exploitation Now.

The audit panned the national lab for leaving monkeys infected with the disease unattended for up to 18 hours.

Eight of the monkeys were found dead, the audit said.

Dr. David Niesel, chief research officer at the medical branch, said in a recent interview with The Daily News that personnel aren’t allowed to enter after normal business hours because of safety practices at the lab given the infectious and dangerous diseases it handles.

Entering the lab also interrupts the animals’ sleep patterns and cause them stress, he said.

“It’s not that we get tired early, not that at all,” he said.

“We don’t want to expose our people to the diseases we handle.”

The Daily News requested a copy of a written after-hours policy through state open records law. An attorney for the medical branch said there were no responsive documents.

The complaint

In the complaint, Gordon blasted the medical branch for its repeated claim that it followed agreed-upon protocols in the research contract, despite leaving the animals unattended overnight.

Medical branch officials had “claimed the monkeys infected with the Marburg virus were expected to die and that there was no expressed expectation of increased overnight monitoring in the contract,” Gordon wrote in the complaint.

“This statement is a gross public relations fabrication,” he said.

It is implicitly understood by institutions performing animal research that researchers must adhere to all animal welfare rules and regulations, which require more frequent monitoring of animals, he said.

The response

In the Nov. 16 letter, D’Agostino responded to a statement from the Nov. 4 letter from the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare regarding the complaint.

“UTMB itself indicated that eight animals died overnight but that it was determined that no additional observations were required as the conditions deteriorated,” Wolff wrote in a Nov. 4 letter.

“UTMB acknowledges that eight animals died overnight,” D’Agostino responded.

Researchers use a scoring system to determine whether animals need to be monitored more frequently or euthanized.

The monkeys had not reached a score warranting either before researchers left work, she said. But the monkeys’ health apparently quickly deteriorated.

“UTMB acknowledges this to be an area of improvement,” she wrote.

Officials had previously said that any claim in the audit that the lab had not taken appropriate care of the animals was speculative.

“The (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee) and the institution are undertaking efforts to address the feasibility of increased observation frequencies and the evaluation of endpoint criteria, as needed, for high-level biocontainment studies while, at the same time, working to ensure the health and safety of human workers involved,” she wrote.

Communication issues

Gordon was the attending veterinarian and head of the animal care program from March 2013 until his termination in June 2015.

In his complaint, Gordon alleged the medical branch fired him for attempting to express his concerns about animal treatment protocols.

Medical branch officials in the Nov. 16 letter to the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare said Gordon was terminated for documented performance concerns. Gordon had not expressed concerns about animal welfare policies during his tenure, according to the letter.

Despite his position as attending veterinarian, he had not been notified by the biocontainment veterinarian overseeing the study that the monkeys had died while unattended, instead of being euthanized, Gordon said.

The medical branch planned new policies that would improve communication, D’Agostino wrote.

The lack of transparency, coupled with the fact that a monkey death — other than a euthanization — had never been reported to him during his tenure led him to believe the problems may be systemic, he said.

“I have significant reason to believe this was not the exception, but the rule,” Gordon wrote in the complaint.

“It is impossible to have conducted research on hundreds of monkeys and never have a clinical case or an unexpected outcome.”

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