Repeated laboratory mistakes and mistreatment of animals resulted in the deaths of 38 primates bred for use in medical experiments by research facilities near Seattle and Houston, the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleged in a newly filed complaint.
The deaths included 25 long-tailed macaques shipped from Cambodia to the U.S. "without adequate veterinarian care" who died or were euthanized after suffering organ failure due to dehydration and hypoglycemia. Additionally, six monkeys died during liver biopsy procedures because "personnel were inadequately trained," the USDA states in the administrative lawsuit.
SNBL USA, a subsidiary of Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories of Japan, operates a breeding and research facility in Everett, Wash., and a breeding, holding, import and research facility in Alice, Texas. It has a large colony of test animals available — "over 40,000 NHPs [non-human primates] in stock worldwide," according to the company website.
USDA officials said they believe SNBL "willfully violated" the Animal Welfare Act, which imposes safeguards to, in part, protect animals used in medical experiments and testing.
"Despite having been advised on multiple occasions" that it was not complying with treatment regulations and was hit with repeated fines, the complaint says, the company continued to fall short of the minimum requirements. The lawsuit requires a response and could lead to a hearing and fines.
The USDA complaint cites 38 deaths that occurred from 2010 through 2016.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said it has also been investigating the research facilities. In 2008, PETA reported on its website that a female macaque was "evidently placed inside a giant rack washer inside her wire cage and killed during the 180 degree, 20-minute cycle."
The animal-rights group alleged that SNBL experiments on dogs, rabbits and other animals besides primates, including force-feeding them experimental chemicals and infecting them with debilitating diseases. It called on the laboratory to be closed down.
Steve Glaza, SNBL executive vice president, said in a statement, "We take these allegations seriously and are fully cooperating with the USDA to ensure that we are in complete compliance." SNBL is committed to the "humane, ethical and appropriate care of all animals," he added, and its research studies are aimed at helping end "some of the most devastating diseases around the world."
Some tests that were done in the past on animals are now performed with high-tech computer models, but proponents and critics of live research continue to debate which methods benefit humans most while harming animals the least.
The largest incident of deaths cited in the complaint involved no testing at all, but centered around SNBL's transportation procedures.
In October 2013, when SNBL shipped 840 long-tailed macaques from Phnom Phen, Cambodia, to Houston, some arrived in poor condition, appearing thirsty, weak and thin. No veterinary care was provided, the USDA alleged. From there, 360 of the monkeys were sent to the Texas lab, and 480 went by common carrier to Everett, 2,400 miles north. Five monkeys died before arrival, 17 died or were euthanized shortly after arrival, and three more macaques died over the next five days, the USDA said.
Also cited in the complaint was the attempted capture of two pigtail macaques — which handlers tried to net for sedation — that led to their deaths from hyperthermia, the USDA says. In other incidents, SNBL handlers restrained an infant macaque but failed to observe that the monkey's head was stuck in the cage, resulting in his suffocation, while another macaque became entangled in wires in his cage and was strangled.
At least two other monkeys died after sustaining severe injuries during fights with incompatible cage mates, the complaint alleges.
SNBL grossed $9.8 million the last two years, according to government figures, and is also a federal contractor. It has at least two previous violations of the Animal Welfare Act, and paid fines of $37,000 in 2006 and $13,000 in 2009.
On Oct. 28, the day after the U.S. complaint was revealed by PETA, SNBL announced a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services for the development of "chemical, radiological, and nuclear (CRN) countermeasures" as part of the national security effort. The press release gave no cost figures or further details.