Seven baby monkeys in a lab at the University of California, Davis, died after being accidentally poisoned by a dye used in research, The Guardian reported last weekend (June 16). The deaths, which occurred after the monkeys’ mothers were marked for identification with Nyanzol-D that was subsequently transferred to their infants, represent the latest in a string of ethical scandals for the university’s primate research labs.
Researchers discovered two of the macaques with dye in their mouths, exhibiting “generalized weakness and respiratory distress [and] severe edema and swelling of the larynx and tongue,” according to documents seen by The Guardian that were sent last year by UC Davis to federal authorities. The five others, which also showed some amount of dye on their skin or in their mouths, were “either found dead or euthanized upon arrival at the hospital.”
A spokesman for the university tells the news outlet that its staff members “strive to take the best possible care of animals in our charge,” adding that the lab’s monkeys receive regular medical checkups and live much longer than their wild counterparts. He adds that since the deaths, “center staff changed procedures so they no longer dye-mark monkeys under six months of age and take other steps to minimize dye transfer.”
UC Davis keeps more than 4,000 nonhuman primates for research, making it one of the largest such centers in the US. Research topics range from infectious diseases such as Zika and HIV, as well as reproductive health and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2005, the university was issued a $4,815 fine by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) after seven monkeys died, apparently from heat exposure. In 2016, The Guardian reported that UC Davis was one of several institutions the USDA was investigating for potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Other sites included the University of Texas, Emory University, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
News of the latest deaths comes as Congress moves forward with plans to increase its scrutiny of the use of nonhuman primates in research. Earlier this year, lawmakers ordered the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to compile reports on their use of the animals.
“I want NIH and FDA to put a plan in place that responsibly phases out the expensive, inefficient and inhumane practice of primate testing, in favor of modern research alternatives,” Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), who drafted the new rules, says in a statement emailed to STAT.
Some researchers argue that nonhuman primates are still essential to research into some diseases, such as HIV and Alzheimer’s, where mice, in vitro, or in silico methods often fail to provide as much information.
“I’d love for [nonhuman primates] to be eliminated from research immediately,” Cindy Buckmaster, chairperson at Americans for Medical Progress, an organization that advocates for necessary and humane animal research, tells STAT. “But unfortunately, the reality of the situation right now is they still are the optimal model for the study of these diseases that concern the American public. . . . And so you can’t have it both ways, yet.”
Clarification (June 19): The article has been amended to describe Americans for Medical Progress as an organization that advocates for “necessary and humane animal research,” not an animal welfare advocacy organization.