SAEN LogoComplaint by former UTMB official alleges law violation
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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.

 

Complaint by former UTMB official alleges law violation
By Harvey Rice, Chron.com, December 6, 2015

GALVESTON - A complaint filed by a former top veterinarian at the University of Texas Medical Branch with federal officials has raised new questions about the alleged mistreatment of research animals at the Galveston National Laboratory.

The veterinarian, Brian Gordon, asserts that the number of animals who suffered painful deaths may be much greater than the eight uncovered earlier this year in an audit.

In his view, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases audit "is the smoking gun indicating a much larger problem concerning the animal welfare at the (National Laboratory)," Gordon wrote in his complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health's Office of Animal Laboratory Welfare.

The complaint was recently made available to the Houston Chronicle.

Gordon, who was responsible for all animal welfare at UTMB and the National Laboratory, alleged that UTMB officials intentionally covered up the deaths of animals, a violation of the 1966 Animal Welfare Act.

See Letter of Complaint - PDF

After Gordon's complaint was lodged, a federal agency, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, last month stated in a letter that it is "extremely concerned with the functioning of the UTMB animal care and use program."

In a response, dated Nov. 16, UTMB denied most of Gordon's allegations. However, it acknowledged its failure to report the deaths of eight research monkeys to the UTMB animal oversight committee as required by federal law.

Purposeful infection

When asked for comment on Gordon's grievances, UTMB made available the Nov. 16 letter to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, which addressed Gordon's complaints and other concerns.

In the letter, Toni D'Agostino, associate vice president for research administration, also said officials are "confident that UTMB has made and continues to make the necessary enhancements" to its animal care and use program "and the science that supports the use of animals in research."

At the heart of the latest revelations is the welfare of animals, including monkeys, used in studies of life-threatening diseases at the world-renowned facility.

Even before Gordon alleged violations of federal law at the laboratory, it was the focus of investigations by two federal agencies - prompted by a February audit report that found eight of 12 monkeys suffered painful deaths after being infected with Marburg, a rare virus found in Africa that is as deadly as Ebola, because researchers allegedly failed to follow proper procedures.

"It is unknown how long these animals might have suffered before dying," said the audit by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

At issue in the federal probes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare is how animals are handled at the four-story National Laboratory, a leader in efforts to combat the world's deadliest diseases. The laboratory helped research Ebola cures and has some of the world's most renowned disease experts.

See UTMB Statement - PDF

The 186,000 square-foot facility can only be entered through the heavily guarded front entrance after passing through a metal detector. The Level 4 laboratory, a designation given to facilities with the most sophisticated safeguards, is reached by an elevator operated only with a security card. Researchers must don spacesuit-like protective gear to enter the room on the fourth floor where the viruses and animals are kept.

Death as an endpoint

The animal deaths at the laboratory were discovered during an audit by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of a $782,000 contract to develop a strain of Marburg that could be used in experiments on monkeys to find a cure. The audit report said eight Macaque monkeys were left unattended for 15-18 hours and died in their cages before they could be euthanized to prevent painful deaths.

"It is unacceptable to leave animals that are expected to die unattended during the time frame death is expected," the report said.

The audit became public only after a whistleblower contacted an animal rights organization, Stop Animal Exploitation Now!, which filed complaints with the National Institutes of Health's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare in August said it had launched an investigation into practices at the National Laboratory.

The next month Gordon, attending veterinarian from March 1, 2013, until he was fired in June , filed his complaint with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare and the USDA.

If Gordon's allegations are proven, UTMB officials could be subject to civil fines of up to $10,000 for each violation and criminal penalties of up to a year in jail and fines of up to $2,500.

In voicing his concerns, Gordon wrote that UTMB officials have contended that the monkeys were expected to die and that there was no expectation of increased overnight monitoring of the monkeys in the contract.

See UTMB response to OLAW - PDF

"This statement is a gross public relations fabrication," Gordon wrote.

Gordon was referring to an August interview with the Houston Chronicle in which UTMB officials said death was an endpoint.

All of the animals used in the research were expected to die, but normally they are expected to be euthanized to prevent agonized deaths. In research parlance, the use of euthanasia means "death is not an endpoint," another way of saying the animals are expected to be humanely killed before the disease kills them.

In its letter, UTMB acknowledged that "death was not to be the endpoint" in the audited research.

Failure to report

As the attending veterinarian, Gordon oversaw veterinary care in all departments at UTMB, including the veterinarian at the National Laboratory. Gordon stated that the National Laboratory veterinarian never reported any deaths of animals to him or the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee as required by law.

The UTMB letter to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare acknowledges that the deaths should have been reported to the committee, but blames the failure on an interpretation of the committee's reporting policy.

The letter disputes Gordon's allegation that the National Laboratory veterinarian failed to report uneuthanized deaths

In his complaint, Gordon alleges he was fired for trying to bring his concerns to the attention of the vice provost, although federal officials said in a letter to UTMB that they accept the medical school's assertion that he was fired for cause.

Gordon's assertions were at least part of the reason for a recent visit by investigators from four federal oversight agencies. One of them, the USDA, has the authority to enforce the Animal Welfare Act and seek civil and criminal penalties, although the agency rarely brings criminal complaints.

"We specifically discussed how best to proceed with the observation of animals in high-biocontainment areas while providing a safe working environment for our scientists and researchers," UTMB said in a statement.

After the inspection visit, UTMB was still working to correct problems.

An after-visit letter from the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare said that although UTMB had made progress in seven areas, 16 problems needed correction, including better veterinary access to the Level 4 laboratory.

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