Monkey business over, say lab critics
FDA says animal tests could return
A government watchdog is celebrating the fact that a federal toxicology lab near Pine Bluff is currently bereft of monkeys.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it could just be a temporary condition.
The National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, 20 miles north of Pine Bluff, is currently renovating its “nonhuman-primate facility,” according to the FDA.
The renovation coincided with a natural break in studies being conducted at this facility. Those studies ended in December 2022, according to an email from Veronika Pfaeffle that indicated it was “our statement attributed to an FDA spokesperson.”
“The remaining nonhuman primates were rehomed, therefore NCTR does not currently house nonhuman primates onsite due to the renovation of the facility,” according to the email. “However, NCTR may conduct nonhuman-primate studies in the future based on agency needs.”
But that comment isn’t going to stop the White Coat Waste Project from taking a victory lap.
The project is a Washington, D.C.-based organization that began a campaign in 2016 to stop primate testing at FDA labs, including the one in Arkansas, which is the only FDA center located outside the Washington metropolitan area.
“We’re proud to have
scored this victory in the war on waste,” said Anthony Bellotti, president and founder of the project. “Since 2016, the White Coat Waste Project has been leading the grassroots and lobbying campaign to get the NCTR out of the monkey business where baby primates were locked alone in tiny cages, forcibly addicted to nicotine, amphetamines and Ritalin, and newborns were torn from their traumatized mothers and killed before they're a week old.”
In 2016, the Arkansas lab had 207 monkeys, according to the White Coat Waste Project. The number increased to 221 in 2017, but fell steadily every year after that. Last year, the Arkansas lab had a total of 60 monkeys, 35 of which were used in painful testing, according to the project.
“When we first launched our campaign, NCTR's primate experimentation was at its peak with over 200 monkeys abused at the lab each year,” said Bellotti. “Now, it's zero and the FDA commissioner's office has stated that the program was retired and NCTR reports that it's switching to alternatives.”
The “retired” comment was a reference to a letter the project received last week in response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request.
“NCTR does not currently have an NHP program. It was retired in December 2022,” Meredith J. Schlaifer, an “FOIA officer” with the FDA commissioner's office, wrote in the response.
NCTR refers to the Arkansas lab. NHP stands for nonhuman primate. And FOIA refers to the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stopped nicotine addition research on monkeys at the Arkansas lab in 2018. His decision came after he received a letter from famed primate researcher Jane Goodall, who was brought into the loop by the White Coat Waste Project.
“I was disturbed — and quite honestly shocked — to learn that the U.S. FDA is still, in 2017, performing cruel and unnecessary nicotine addiction experiments on monkeys,” wrote Goodall in a letter that didn't mention the Arkansas center by name.
Goodall wrote that devices were placed in young squirrel monkeys to deliver nicotine directly into their bloodstreams. Then the monkeys were put in restraint devices and trained to press levers to receive doses of nicotine.
“This apparently enables them to determine at what point the monkeys become addicted,” wrote Goodall.
Each monkey is locked alone in a cage for nearly three years, she wrote.
“To continue performing nicotine experiments on monkeys when the results of smoking are well-known in humans — whose smoking habits can be studied directly — is shameful,” she wrote.
The White Coat Waste Project has filed lawsuits in its effort to get information about testing on monkeys at FDA labs.
Justin Goodman, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at the White Coat Waste Project, said 20 monkeys died at the Arkansas lab from 2015 through 2019. That number includes five that died unexpectedly.
Goodman said 15 of the 20 monkeys were “intentionally killed” — seven newborns were killed for experiments and eight other monkeys were killed because of poor health or “self-injurious behavior.”
Pfaeffle didn't respond to emailed questions about the number of monkeys that had died at the facility, or other follow-up questions.
In 2019, after learning of the death of a 5-year-old rhesus monkey at the Arkansas lab, two congressmen asked the FDA to halt all primate research at the Arkansas laboratory until a “pattern of negligence and abuse can be thoroughly investigated and corrected.”
U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., made the request in a letter to Gottlieb.
On Monday, before he knew that the FDA said the monkey experiments might resume at the Arkansas lab at some point, Boyle said, “Painful testing on primates has no place in the 21st century when superior alternatives are available, and I am thrilled that following my years of advocacy with the White Coat Waste Project the FDA has finally shut down all its primate experiments at the National Center for Toxicological Research. I will continue to lead bipartisan efforts in Washington to stop the abuse of primates and other animals in outdated, expensive and unnecessary government experiments.”
Boyle couldn't be reached on Tuesday.
“A majority of Democrats and Republicans agree: taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pay for cruel and wasteful government spending on primate tests, and we'll continue to make sure they don't have to and that NCTR doesn't start monkeying around again,” said Bellotti. “Stop the money. Stop the madness!”
But animal testing is still important, according to the FDA's emailed statement.
“While the FDA is committed to doing all it can to reduce the reliance on animal-based studies, there are still many areas where animal research is necessary,” according to the email.
“Without the use of animals, it would be impossible to gain critical knowledge needed to prevent human and animal suffering for many life-threatening diseases,” it read. “Animal research has played an important role in advancements such as preventing polio, eradicating smallpox, and identifying new cancer treatments.”
The FDA plays a critical role in research that improves regulatory science, as well as new drug and vaccine discovery, according to the email.
Of the five monkeys that died unexpectedly at the Arkansas lab, four were squirrel monkeys and one was a rhesus monkey.
After the nicotine program was stopped at NCTR, over two dozen squirrel monkeys were moved from the Arkansas lab to Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary near Gainesville, Fla., according to the Associated Press.
But some monkeys remained at the Arkansas lab and were used in other testing, according to the White Coat Waste Project.
The National Center for Toxicological Research was once part of the U.S. Army's Pine Bluff Arsenal.
“During the 1950s cold war era, the Army used the site (located in the northeast sector of the arsenal) for research into biological pathogens and the production of chemical warfare agents,” according to an Encyclopedia of Arkansas article by Russell E. Bearden of White Hall.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order banning such research and production at federal facilities, in response to the world's outcry at the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, wrote Bearden. The Army subsequently transferred operation of the Arkansas site to the FDA.
The FDA started a new research facility in Jefferson in January 1971 after recognizing the scientific imperative of research into the effects of toxic chemicals on people and the environment, according to the encyclopedia.
“Leading scientists from around the world have worked at NCTR, and their findings have had a significant impact upon the scientific community,” wrote Bearden.