Spider Monkey.

FDA shuts down nicotine addiction study over allegations of “cruel” treatment of animals

The FDA will be sending twenty-six squirrel monkeys to a long-term sanctuary after four deaths in an experiment that didn’t meet the agency’s animal-welfare standards.

Spider Monkey.

Spider Monkeys.
Image credits Angie Toh.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USDA) has shut down an experiment that used squirrel monkeys (genus Ateles) to study nicotine addiction among allegations of animal cruelty. The Washington Post reports that twenty-six monkeys — 20 of which were involved in the study and a further six which were not — will be moved from Arkansas’ National Center for Toxicological Research to an animal sanctuary.

The FDA hasn’t yet announced precisely which sanctuary will receive the primates, although it did note that the process could take a long time.

A smoking gun

The study began in 2014 and aimed to get a better understanding of nicotine addiction. The early stages involved adolescent and adult squirrel monkeys self-administering the substance by pulling on a lever which they, unsurprisingly, did until addiction set in. Then, the team lowered the doses received with each hit, and set out to observe the effects.

In the span of three years (by the summer of 2017), four of these monkeys had died. Three of them succumbed to anesthesia complications when catheters were inserted, and the fourth “was related to [gastric] bloat, the cause of which is often unclear,” according to the agency.

The experiment was brought to the public’s attention last March, after a Freedom of Information Act request was filed for the study’s records by the White Coat Waste Project, a group which opposes taxpayer-funded animal experimentation. They obtained 64 pages of documents pertaining to the study, following their request.

The group’s efforts came to fruition in September, when high-profile primatologist Jane Goodall wrote an open letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. The document called the testing carried out at Arkansas center “shameful,” citing “unnecessary and cruel” practices such as restraining the monkeys and subjecting them to the side effects of nicotine — including vomiting and diarrhea

Gottlieb put the study on hold the same month, and ordered a review be carried out to assess the well-being of the animals involved.

On Friday, he released a statement announcing the end of the study. The commissioner said that while the monkeys were “safe and being well cared for,” the review has raised concerns. Chief among these were a “generalized lack of adequate oversight” and “repeated reported deficiencies” from a third-party animal welfare contractor.

“It is clear the study was not consistent with the agency’s high animal welfare standards,” Gottlieb said, adding that the FDA “will place the monkeys involved in a new permanent sanctuary home, which will provide them with appropriate long-term care.”

With the statement, Gottlieb added that the agency is working on adapting various modeling and technological tools to reduce the need for animal testing. However, some experiments will still require work with animals, including the development of childhood vaccines. With that in mind, the FDA will take further steps to improve its animal program, including the establishment of an Animal Welfare Council to keep watch on all animal research it conducts.

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