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INVESTIGATION: Sickness and death at U.S. National Primate Research Centers’ largest monkey breeding facility

At least 47 monkeys have died from the illness over the past eight years. One monkey died from dehydration after not being given water for several days because a water line was not properly affixed to its cage. Another strangled itself on a chain connected to a foraging device.

ROB O’DELL: Pigtailed macaques abound in the steamy jungles and swamps of Southeast Asia. They live in large, tight-knit social groups that can number from several dozen to as many as 50, and they love to be around water. In the United States, however, the largest breeding facility for the species is located in the middle of a parched desert north of Mesa.

Between a gravel pit and a defense contractor that has fouled the environment over the decades, the University of Washington runs a breeding colony that has been plagued by problems in recent years. The secluded compound is a secretive place. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s police won’t let you step foot there and contend you can’t even take photos from a distance.

The Washington National Primate Research Center touts its breeding program as a “specific pathogen free” facility that is free of certain diseases, where about 500 monkeys are supposedly healthy and viable so as to not compromise national research studies. But a seven-month investigation by The Arizona Republic found that Valley fever, a common flu-like illness caused by a fungus from the soil in the desert around Phoenix, has run rampant among the macaque colony, resulting in higher than expected rates of sickness and death.

At least 47 monkeys have died from the illness over the past eight years, UW said in a statement. But the university insisted just because a monkey was found to have lesions from Valley fever during its necropsy does did not mean it was the cause of its demise. The illness also threatens the results of tens of millions of dollars in research aimed at finding cures and vaccines for some of humankind’s most serious viruses and diseases: HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, Zika, Ebola and even COVID-19, and it has raised concerns about whether the Arizona site is the right location for the largest pigtailed macaque breeding facility in the United States…

But Valley fever is by no means the only problem facing the Washington National Primate Research Center… The monkeys at the Mesa breeding facility are drinking well water tainted with perchlorate, a contaminant leached from ponds containing rocket fuel runoff from an adjacent defense contractor. Despite recommendations that a water treatment system be installed at the breeding facility in 2016, no such precaution has been taken…

What’s more, the primate center has run afoul of state and local regulators. It was cited in May for failing to alert Washington state regulators that macaques imported into the state had Valley fever. And it has been cited by federal regulators for conduct detrimental to animal welfare. At least five monkeys have died since 2017 because of poor care or improper oversight.

One monkey died from dehydration after not being given water for several days because a water line was not properly affixed to its cage. Another strangled itself on a chain connected to a foraging device. A third asphyxiated after surgery because scientists did not have it fast properly ahead of time. The macaque vomited in the recovery room and died after inhaling the vomit into
its lungs…

A separate 2018 report by the National Scientific Advisory Board — a report that is required to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health — found that the primate center was facing “multiple challenges” with a type of bacterial staph infection called MRSA, as well as with the simian retrovirus (a disease similar to HIV in humans) and Valley fever. “This is very important as the latter two agents both have the potential to impact research projects and the first is a potential risk in surgically-implanted or immunosuppressed animals,” the report said.

A retired certified laboratory animal veterinarian who reviewed necropsies of more than 35 macaques for The Arizona Republic went even further by suggesting that every animal at the Arizona facility has had Valley fever, even if the monkeys never tested positive for the disease. The veterinarian requested anonymity because the veterinary community punishes those who speak out, and despite being retired, the veterinarian feared that being identified could cause former colleagues to come under scrutiny…

In a written response to questions from The Republic, the University of Washington said it neither “agrees or disagrees with this assertion,” adding that in desert communities a significant number of humans and animals would show antibodies for Valley fever at some point in their lives.

In August, the university asked The Republic to delay publication of its series for several weeks so it could fly primate center interim director Sally Thompson-Iritani and division chief Deborah Fuller to Arizona to give a tour of the facility to reporters and answer questions in person. Two days before the interview, the university canceled the visit citing an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

The leaders of the primate center then refused to do an interview over Zoom even though a video meeting posed no threat of coronavirus exposure. University of Washington spokeswoman Tina Mankowski said the school would only respond to questions in writing, saying primate center leadership didn’t like the questions that The Republic was asking. SOURCE…

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