USDA cites Harvard research facility

Primate died after anesthesia error

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / August 17, 2011

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Harvard animal research facilities received five citations from federal authorities during a July inspection, including one for a problem that resulted in the death of a primate because of incorrectly administered anesthesia.

It marked the second primate death within a year to be cited by federal authorities at Harvard Medical School facilities.

The July inspection report was issued by the US Department of Agriculture, and it is unclear whether fines or warnings will be issued. The USDA did not respond to phone messages left yesterday.

In addition to the citation in the death of the primate, the inspection found other, less serious problems at the Harvard Medical School facility in Boston, including flaking paint and rust on a radiator in a surgical space, uncovered garbage bins, and inadequate cleaning of primate equipment.

The primate death occurred during an operation in February, when an anesthetist increased the dose of anesthesia to a nonhuman primate because of a change in its condition. The anesthetist later failed to reduce the dose. That caused an overdose and led to acute kidney failure, according to the inspection report.

“It is the responsibility of a research facility to ensure that all scientists, research technicians, animal technicians, and other personnel involved in animal care, treatment, and use are appropriately trained and qualified to perform their duties,’’ the inspection report states. After the death, which was reported by the institution to the USDA, the researcher’s staff received additional instruction and retraining on the use of anesthetics and analgesics.

An inspector also found that at the end of June, there had been more than one instance in which unapproved procedures were performed on animals at the New England Primate Research Center in Southborough. That issue is being investigated to determine the extent of the problem and corrective actions that need to be taken, according to the report, which does not describe the nature of the procedures.

A statement issued by Harvard Medical School described corrective actions taken to address noncompliance issues.

“We immediately engaged two external consultants and initiated a review process while taking action to reinforce strict compliance with established protocols,’’ said the statement.

Steps taken included temporarily halting new research projects at the primate center and strengthening research oversight.

The New England Primate Research Center has projects to better understand AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and drug addiction. In 2010, 1,266 nonhuman primates were used in Harvard Medical School research, according to a report filed with federal regulators.

Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, a group that opposes animal research, said that further steps should be taken.

“This should draw a very serious punitive action from the USDA,’’ Budkie said.

Budkie has submitted letters to the National Institutes of Health and the USDA requesting further investigation and corrective regulatory action.

When preventable animal deaths and other compliance problems occur at research facilities, warnings and fines are sometimes levied. For example, in 2009, a female monkey at Charles River Laboratories’ animal facility in Nevada died after being left in its cage while it went through a cage wash apparatus. The Wilmington company was fined $4,500.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

CORRECTION: A story in yesterday's Metro section about federal citations issued to Harvard Medical School because of problems with primate research did not correctly locate where some of the problems were found. In addition to one issue that occurred in a facility in Southborough, four of the cited problems, including one involving the death of a primate, was conducted in a Harvard Medical facility in Boston.