- Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office
The Independent Review Panel convened last March by Harvard Medical School (HMS) dean Jeffrey S. Flier to assess practices at the New England Primate Research Center (NEPRC) has recommended changes in staffing, processes, and policies to “deliver humane and effective animal care and assure safe and productive research,” according to the summary of its report, dated August 13. In a statement issued the next day, Flier said, “We accept the recommendations” and have begun “timely implementation.” The review panel itself was one of several responses to a series of lapses in care that resulted in the deaths of animals at NEPRC and multiple violations of federal animal-welfare regulations. NEPRC leadership was replaced, new medical research was temporarily suspended, and new procedures were introduced, but problems in animal care recurred, prompting investgations by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The seven-member independent review panel, chaired by Deborah Kochevar, dean and Foster professor at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, cited Flier’s charge to “assess the current veterinary and animal husbandry operations, logistics, and management” of the NEPRC. (A full list of panel members and their summary recommendations are available here.) Although “Information about recent primate deaths and the [USDA]-documented non-compliant activity provided valuable context for the panel,” those incidents “were not the focus” of its examination. Based on its review of more than 150 documents, phone interviews, and a site visit, the panel considered “elements of organizational structure, key personnel (husbandry, technical and professional staff, investigators), animal husbandry, veterinary support, facility operations, infrastructure in support of animal care, and equipment installation and maintenance.”
Its recommendations—focused on NEPRC, HMS, and the Harvard Medical Area Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC—the internal group responsible for reviewing and overseeing proposed uses of animals in research)—included appointing an “Attending Veterinarian and a biosafety officer dedicated to the NEPRC as part of a general move towards permanent, stable NEPRC leadership by individuals with the knowledge, experience, and communication skills necessary to build a cooperative, collegial team.” Other recommendations detailed in the summary report include:
- Create a comprehensive multi-level training and career development program, including a team-based work model to enhance organizational development and increase optimal staff interactions and cross-disciplinary accountability.
- Assess critically the structure, charge, scope and composition of existing NEPRC committees and consider the need for new approaches to internal oversight and governance.
- Encourage broad-based identification of and open communication about problems, and active involvement in problem solving. This should be accomplished through review and revision of existing policies as well as employee education and training.
- Establish a NEPRC-specific IACUC subcommittee as part of a general move towards improving the interface between the IACUC and the NEPRC.
- Ensure the continued involvement of the IACUC in the review and approval of NEPRC animal care standard operating procedures prior to implementation.
- Define the IACUC’s responsibilities to reflect clearly its oversight, as opposed to management, responsibilities.
- Identify and empower an experienced advocate for NEPRC within the senior leadership of HMS to ensure consistent HMS support for NEPRC.
The summary report urged the primate center to “uphold the highest standards in animal care, health, and welll-being while conducting exemplary biomedical research.” The panel members said they believed that the NEPRC “is making meaningful progress and positioning itself to continue to make valuable contributions to Harvard and to the larger biomedical research community. Ongoing implementation of recommendations from this and other reviews supports resuming the consideration of new research protocols at the NEPRC.”
Flier said that the panel’s recommendations “align with work currently underway and will further spur the progress made over the past year as we instituted our own self-review and initiated an action plan designed to ensure the health and welfare of the NEPRC primates.” He noted that:
I care deeply about this issue and view the well-being of animals within our care for the purpose of advancing scientific understanding of disease as a public trust. Of course, this has been a challenging period for the NEPRC, but it has also been a time of reflection and analysis that has led to more stringent oversight and to a rigorous process of quality improvement. We recognize that this is an ongoing responsibility, and we will be unwavering in our efforts to ensure that our administrative and managerial practices are on par with our scientific standards of excellence.
The panel’s full report is being treated as an internal HMS document. The news about the panel’s summary recommendations was first reported by the Boston Globe’s Carolyn Y. Johnson on August 15; she has been the lead reporter on the NEPRC during the past year, and wrote about the issues for Harvard Magazine last spring.