The head of Harvard's New England Primate Research Center (NEPRC) has resigned, and the school has slapped a moratorium on all new primate research projects following the recent death of a primate because of neglect.
"My involvement in this has been very substantial over the last year, but it is getting raised to a higher level in terms of my person direct engagement," Jeffrey Flier, dean of the Harvard Medical School, said in a statement.
The actions come in the wake of the February 26 euthanization of an elderly cotton-top tamarin monkey that was terminally dehydrated after being left without water in its cage for an extended period of time. This recent death was the fourth reported at the university since 2010.
On March 1, NEPRC interim director Frederick C.S. Wang, despite what he termed "strong requests from the Harvard Medical school to continue," stepped down from the job and returned full-time to his directorship of the clinical virology lab at Brigham & Women's Hospital. William Chin, the medical school's executive dean for research, will temporarily head NEPRC.
In June 2010, a monkey was found dead at the center after being left in a cage that was sent through an automatic washer. As a result of that incident, Harvard brought in Wang to address its animal care deficiencies. Since then, however, three more primates have died and the US Department of Agriculture has cited several episodes of serious primate endangerment at the site.
Deborah Runkle, senior research associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says she expects opponents of animal research to use the primate deaths at Harvard to garner publicity for their cause to end primate research.
"We've seen this before whenever anything hasn't gone right," she said. In response to such campaigns, some institutions have stopped primate research projects. For example, the University of Toronto announced last month that it was abandoning all research using primates.
But primate researchers at other US locations insist that they will not be affected by the problems at Harvard. "One center's operations shouldn't impact another center's operations," said Jim Newman of the Oregon National Primate Research Center.
Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, said: "I don't think the situation at Harvard, which is unfortunate, is indicative of any broader problem. I don't think it has an impact on broader medical research."
In addition, Trull emphasized that the problems at NEPRC stemmed from animal care deficiencies, not from the specific research projects. "This seems to be uncommon, certainly in this era of the highest standards of animal care at research facilities throughout the United States."
"There is a lot to say about the benefits of primate research,” said Runkle. “Monkeys are one of the last used species. They're used only when lower animals won't work, and they're used in some research that's been extraordinarily important to human health."