The San Antonio Current‘s Mark Reagan reports that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has opened an investigation into alleged federal violations and five primate fatalities at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI), confirmed by an email exchange between the federal regulator and the national animal rights watchdog Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN) obtained by the free weekly alternative newspaper.
Reagan says details are sketchy, but reports that SAEN Executive Director Michael A. Budkie infers that the investigation is a response multiple complaints SAEN has filed with the department since January 2014, when an infant primate was crushed to death at the facility, and four more subsequently died in various incidents. SAEN alleges that TBRI violated federal standards pertaining to veterinary care, sanitation and supervision of experimentation, citing Mr. Budkie stating in a press release that: “Negligence at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute has now killed five monkeys through strangulation, trauma, and being crushed.”
San Antonio ABC affiliate KSAT12’s Cory Smith reports that the USDA declined comment on the investigation’s specifics, and that even TBRI’s top scientists have not been informed as to precisely what investigators are looking for.
One of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions, Texas Biomed is the site of the Southwest National Primate Research Centerand the world’s largest colony of baboons for biomedical research, including a unique pedigreed colony of approximately 1,200 animals. THe INstitute is also home The Institute also is home to the nation’s only privately owned biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory — a maximum containment lab that facilitates safe research on lethal pathogens and emerging diseases like Ebola, Dengue fever, Lassa fever, SARS, including ones for which there are no treatments or vaccines, and potential bio-terror agents. It also hosts the AT&T Genomics Computing Center, which houses the world’s largest computer cluster for human genetic and genomic research, a high-performance computing facility that enables scientists to search for disease-influencing genes at supercomputing speeds. Beyond crunching data, Texas Biomed’s computer ranch offers hope to people worldwide who suffer from rare genetic disorders as well as more common illnesses.
KSAT 12’s Smith notes that TBRI is one of seven research facilities in the country that operates under USDA oversight, and on which the agency conducts twice-annual random inspections. The agency can take a variety of actions against the center if it finds evidence of wrongdoing. Penalties the USDA can impose for violations range from written warnings to fines of up to $10,000. Reportedly in 2012 the institute was issued a civil penalty of $6,094 in January of 2010 and another of $25, 714 in 2012. Since 2012, the institute has received 16 citations for safety and animal handling issues, which animal welfare activists like SAEN contend indicates a pattern of negligence at the institute.
In a release regarding the five primates strangulated (sic) as well as a chimpanzee was euthanized due to a severe bacterial infection at TBRI, the SAEN’s Mr. Budkie advocates in a release: “This facility deserves the maximum penalty allowable under the law.”
However, Smith cites Institute spokespersons explaining that the citations referred to related to minor and isolated infractions, many of which are corrected immediately, and while those incidents were unfortunate, the primate deaths did not result from negligence, and are not reflective of shortcomings in the quality of care animals receive at the facility. He cites a statement released by institute in response to the USDA’s investigation saying:
“Texas Biomedical Research Institute has a long-standing commitment to treating its animals humanely and with the highest regard for their well-being. In our last inspection by the USDA in February, we received valuable feedback and responded to observations on the day of the inspection. We work closely with regulatory agencies throughout the year to determine best practices to enhance care provided to the primates, for the sake of the animals and the quality of the research programs.”
“We are very proud to receive full accreditation status, as it speaks to the dedication and commitment our staff has toward the care of animals at the SNPRC,” says Dr. John Bernal, Associate Director of Veterinary Resources and Attending Veterinarian for the SNPRC, in the release. “AAALAC accreditation is a voluntary process by which our program and our staff undergo intense scrutiny, but we see it as a critical part of our assessment program. In addition to the standard monitoring by regulatory agencies, AAALAC helps us ensure we are doing everything we can to maintain the safety and high quality of care for the animals at SNPRC.”
Texas Biomed also notes that according to the AAALAC’s accreditation letter, the Council noted several areas of excellence at the facility, including baboon social housing that includes environmental enrichment, the comprehensive computerized animal database medical records program and the behavioral management program for all of species housed at SNPRC, as well as several additional observational and reporting procedures SNPRC has in place.
“Working in the animal research industry requires a great deal of care and compassion,” SNPRC Director Dr. Robert Lanford observes. “Our team understands that it is imperative our animals have the highest level of care, as they contribute to the scientific research being done here that is so critical to the advancement of human health and fighting disease.”
Texas Biomedical Research Institute, originally known as the Foundation of Applied Research, was created as a non-profit institution in 1941 through the philanthropic vision of the late San Antonio based rancher,inventor, businessman, adventurer, art collector, and oil fortune heir Thomas B. Slick Jr. (1918-1962), and remains sustained by philanthropy today. In addition to competitive grants and contracts that fund Texas Biomed’s research, a significant portion of its $70 million-plus annual budget is derived from financial contributions made by foundations, corporations and individuals that share the vision of Texas Biomed’s founder, who wanted to create “a city of science” advancing human progress through scientific research.
Located on a 200-acre campus on San Antonio’s northwest side, Texas Biomed partners with hundreds of researchers and institutions around the world, dedicated to advancing understanding and treatment of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, psychiatric disorders, problems associated with pregnancy, AIDS, hepatitis, malaria, parasitic infections, and a host of other infectious diseases.
Texas Biomed’s staff of more than 300 employees includes approximately 84 doctoral-level scientists heading up more than 200 research projects in the Institute’s Department of Genetics; Department of Virology and Immunology and the Southwest National Primate Research Center which 1999 became the first new NCRR-funded primate research center to be established in more than 35 years.
The SNPRC brings several unique qualities and strengths to the NPRC program, based in a long, productive history of nonhuman primate research at Texas Biomed. These include the world’s largest captive baboon population, the world’s largest and best-characterized pedigreed primate population, the world’s largest group of geneticists committed to research with and management of captive nonhuman primates. The facility has one of the largest nonhuman primate censuses of any NPRC, the largest chimpanzee census of any NPRC, capacity for nonhuman primate studies in Biocontainment Level 4, and a veterinary technical staff experienced in management and use of nonhuman primates ranging from chimpanzees to marmosets.
Texas Biomed’s Southwest National Primate Research Center has developed life-saving treatments and new approaches to several serious diseases, including a hepatitis B vaccine for virus, a hepatitis C virus treatment, a ventilator that prevents pulmonary distress in premature infants, and gene identification for treatment and determining risk of cardiovascular disease.
The TBRI 2013 Annual Report is available here:
Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI)
Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC)
AT&T Genomics Computing Center
The San Antonio Current
Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN)
Texas State Historical Association
Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI)