Citing cash concerns, Harvard Medical School announced on Tuesday that it will close the New England Primate Research Center (NEPRC), which houses around 2,000 monkeys in Southborough, Massachusetts.
Jeffrey Flier, the dean of Harvard’s faculty of medicine, said that the decision to close the nearly 50-year-old facility was “made with a heavy heart”. The school’s statement added that the decision was based on a review of the long-term academic benefits and the financial costs of continuing to operate the NEPRC.
The medical school said that in extremely tight budget times, other missions had to take priority and that it will not seek to renew a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. Instead, it said, the animals will be transferred to other primate research centres or maintained on site during a 12-to-24 month wind-down period, with a priority on “ensuring the migration takes place with the least possible disruption, and that the scientific work of the NEPRC is continued”. It listed among the centre’s accomplishments the development of the first nonhuman primate models of colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease, and the first unambiguous evidence that AIDS is caused by a virus.
At least one leader at another of the seven remaining primate research centres supported by the National Institutes of Health was highly critical of the decision. “It’s very, very disturbing, disappointing, disheartening, shocking,” Nancy Haigwood, director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, told the Boston Globe, which published a detailed blog post about the NEPRC closing on Tuesday.
Animal-welfare groups applauded the decision. It’s “a significant, positive development” said Kathleen Conlee, the vice-president of animal-research issues at the Humane Society of the United States, which issued this statement. “Our government should prioritize alternatives that will provide better, faster and more relevant results for human health.”
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which enforces the Animal Welfare Act, has found numerous violations at the Harvard centre in recent years. In March, 2012, the NEPRC suspended new experiments, and its interim director resigned after the third death of a monkey in six months.
“Harvard wants the public to believe that this closure is due to economics,” said Michael Budkie, the executive director of the activist group Stop Animal Exploitation NOW. “That is simply not true. This closure is the direct result of pressure from activists.” Budkie noted that centre is still under investigation by the USDA and could face a substantial fine for multiple violations of the animal-welfare law.