Probe of Tulane primate lab blames lapses for bacteria exposure _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- The Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, top, photographed Friday, Feb. 13, 2015. The Estates of Northpark subdivision, bottom, is adjacent to the TNPRC.

An activist group has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture about the deaths of four monkeys at the Tulane National Primate Research Center near Covington.

The group SAEN, or Stop Animal Exploitation Now, filed the complaint with USDA Western Region Director Robert Gibbens, asking him to investigate the four deaths and assess Tulane a $10,000 fine for each infraction.

That’s the maximum fine permitted under the Animal Welfare Act, according to a letter sent by Michael Budkie, SAEN’s director.

Three of the four monkeys that died in incidents cited by Budkie were euthanized during an outbreak of melioidosis, a disease caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei.

Burkholderia pseudomallei is on the government’s list of “select agents,” or specimens that can pose a severe threat to public health and safety. Its use is tightly regulated, and the three monkeys’ deaths were evidence that the bacterium had escaped from a supposedly secure lab at the research center.

The three deaths spurred federal, state and local officials to respond with stepped-up inspections and testing of several hundred monkeys at the center for possible exposure. Officials also tested soil, water and air around the center to see if bacteria had spread beyond its boundary.

Melioidosis is treatable in humans with antibiotics. It is commonly found in southeast Asia and northern Australia.

A federal report on the outbreak cited lax policies and procedures at the lab, including researchers not wearing proper protective gear when entering and leaving the lab where the bacterium was kept.

The fourth primate was inadvertently left in a transport van overnight and eventually had to be euthanized.

Budkie also pointed to a September inspection that cited the center for having an inadequate euthanasia policy.

“Tulane’s negligence has now resulted in the deaths of four monkeys, as well as endangering the population of New Orleans due to breaches of biosafety protocols,” Budkie wrote to Gibbens. “Therefore, the seriousness of the infractions by Tulane necessitates a severe penalty to make certain that no further incidents occur.”

A Tulane spokesman said the incidents already have been reviewed by federal agencies and corrected by Tulane staff.

“The euthanasia policy citation noted by SAEN was related to a typographical error in an animal protocol and not the actual euthanasia policy and practice,” spokesman Michael Strecker said. “There was never any effect on any animal as a result of this typographical error.”

Strecker also noted that the incident with the monkey left overnight in a van occurred in 2012 and was investigated by the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. The university “took disciplinary and corrective action” that OLAW approved, Strecker said.

For now, researchers at the Tulane Primate Center still are prevented from doing any work on select agents, according to Jason McDonald, of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no timeline for the program to be reinstated.

Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.