No More Monkey Business

Recent deaths highlight need for urgent reform in Harvard’s primate labs

Last Thursday, The Crimson reported that the interim director of Harvard Medical School’s New England Primate Research Center resigned following the recent deaths of two monkeys at the facility. These incidents occurred shortly after NEPRC was cited for violations of the Animal Welfare Act by the United States Department of Agriculture for alleged acts of animal mistreatment, ones that we denounced on these same pages not long ago. In response to the new deaths, HMS has suspended all new primate research and commissioned an outside committee to assess corrective efforts at the center. While this loss of life at Harvard’s labs is saddening and disturbing, the administration has responded well with its vigorous action in response to these recent developments, and we hope that it will lead to lasting improvements at NEPRC.

Primate testing is a particularly controversial form of animal testing, and it has been banned in nations such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, among others. In spite of the contentious nature of such testing, we believe that it makes valuable contributions to science and should be continued until viable alternatives can be found. Primates are the most genetically similar organisms to humans and testing and experimenting on them can lead to valuable breakthroughs that ultimately benefit human life. To give just one example, primate testing has contributed enormously to scientists’ understanding of Parkinson’s disease.

However, the very proximity to humans that makes primates ideal for medical research makes their mistreatment in Harvard’s labs all the more horrific. The details of the recent monkey deaths at NEPRC are sickening. One of the monkeys may have died because its cage lacked water. It would seem that the average pet owner would have proved more competent in this case than the staff at the labs. Thus, while primate testing is not problematic in and of itself, the manner in which Harvard has recently conducted it is simply unacceptable, and systematic reforms are urgently needed.

A research system that works properly would hold all individuals accountable for their actions. Whether individual negligence or lack of institutional oversight led to the monkeys’ deaths does not matter; those directly involved should be held responsible, and should pay for the loss of life with the loss of their jobs. To be sure, Harvard is not the only institution that seems to mishandle primate testing. Princeton, for instance, was cited for multiple offenses by the USDA in 2010. Yet Harvard should hold itself to a higher standard than its peers. By seeking to not merely comply with USDA regulations regarding the treatment of monkeys, but surpass them, the University can set a valuable example for others.

While the circumstances surrounding the recent primate deaths are still somewhat unclear, it is indisputable that something is not working well at NEPRC. We are pleased to see that the University is investigating and hope that systematic reform will prevent such events from happening in the future.



Recommended Articles