Independent committee recommends changes at Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center
An independent panel of scientists and veterinarians enlisted by Harvard Medical School to review its troubled primate research facility in Southborough is recommending that new leadership positions be created and a committee be formed to assure animal safety and foster closer ties with the main medical school.
The two-page executive summary of the report, released to the Globe by Deborah Kochevar, dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and the chairwoman of the committee, calls for establishing a new veterinarian position and appointing a biosafety officer specifically dedicated to the New England Primate Research Center. The committee did not set out to investigate the specific lapses in animal care and procedures that resulted in death and harm to animals.
“Our charge and our intent was the evaluation of process improvements and these long-term strategies that would impact the delivery of humane, effective animal care and also ensure productive research,” Kochevar said in an interview. “The information about recent primate deaths was part of our context, but we weren’t there to investigate those incidents.”
Many of the recommended changes involve adding layers of oversight and direct reporting to Harvard, including the designation of a senior leader at the medical school who would act as an advocate for the primate center.
The new attending veterinarian specifically assigned to the primate center would report directly to Harvard Medical School’s executive dean for administration. The independent committee recommended a review of training and policies to ensure they encourage open communication and reporting of problems.
Similarly, authors of the review recommended that a subcommittee be formed with the express task of focusing on the care and use of primates at the Southborough center. Now, there is a single committee overseeing animal research and care at all of the medical school’s research facilities.
In a statement, Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, dean of the medical school, said Harvard accepted the recommendations.
“We have begun a timely implementation of these recommendations,” Flier said in the statement.
“Of course, this has been a challenging period,” for the primate center, Flier wrote, “but it has also been a time of reflection and analysis that has led to more stringent oversight and to a rigorous process of quality improvement.”
The US Department of Agriculture is continuing its investigation into a number of incidents at Harvard involving primates, according to spokesman Dave Sacks. That investigation could result in a warning or fines of up to $10,000 per violation of the Animal Welfare Act.
Kochevar said that since the committee did the assessment at Harvard’s behest, it would be up to the university to decide whether to release the full report. A Harvard spokeswoman said the full report would not be released, to protect the privacy of the operations of the primate center.
Justin Goodman, associate director for laboratory investigations at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called Harvard’s decision to not release the full document disappointing and said the report’s recommendations provided no insight into underlying problems.
“There’s nothing here that they shouldn’t already be doing, and that’s what’s kind of perplexing,” Goodman said.
The problems at the primate center first became apparent in June 2010, when a monkey was found dead in its cage after the cage had gone through a high-temperature wash. Although the animal was determined to have died before it went through the cage wash, Harvard received a warning from the Agriculture Department.
Three additional monkeys died in incidents that revealed lapses in animal care or procedures, and the facility suspended new research projects, appointed new leaders at the center, and began extensive self-review and implementation of new procedures. For example, staff members began initialing tasks as they were completed, rather than simply checking them off, a measure designed to increase accountability. Formal afternoon rounds were instituted to ensure that monkeys had adequate food and water.
Scientists with experience running primate centers said the recommendations from this panel seemed reasonable, and were clearly aimed at tightening the connections and communications between the primate center and Harvard.
Jay Kaplan, director of the Wake Forest University Primate Center, said the relationships between primate facilities and their parent institutions varies widely and the recommendations appear to be aimed at bringing that relationship closer than it has been historically.
“New England is one of the less-tightly bound ones: 30 miles away from the campus, and that does make a difference,” Kaplan said. The recommendation that stands out as especially important, Kaplan said, is the establishment of a subcommittee dedicated to overseeing animal care and use in research at the center.
“Having a subcommittee dedicated to primate center business is a good thing, to ensure more efficient and effective oversight of protocols,” Kaplan said.
Nancy L. Haigwood, director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, said the summary of the report includes recommendations that seem reasonable.
“They discovered there’s some training that could be done better, leadership that could be better, and so-called standard operation procedures could be better,” Haigwood said.
She said the events at Harvard over the last two years had reverberated nationwide, sparking intense discussion among leaders of other primate centers.
“At Oregon, when we saw this, we took a very close look” at standard operating procedures and training, Haigwood said, “to assure ourselves we would not be vulnerable to such an event ourselves.”