Last week, seemingly out of nowhere, Oklahoma State University president Burns Hargis pulled the plug on a federally funded research project that would have tested anthrax vaccines on baboons, and euthanized the primates at the experiment’s end. This week more details are beginning to come out regarding why Hargis made his call. Basically, his office says, they didn’t want to deal with possibly violent animal rights protesters.
The plan was to expose the animals to the spores of the attenuated Sterne strain of anthrax and eventually advance to the Ames strain — the fully encapsulated and virulent form of the bacterium that was used in the anthrax attacks of 2001 — and observe the pathobiology of infection. It was part of a collaborative multi-institutional NIH grant originally awarded for $12 million in 2004, and renewed in September of this year for another $14.3 million [The Scientist]. Oklahoma State would have hosted only a small part of the research, and the university’s animal testing committee approved the project unanimously.
President Hargis gave few details when reports first surfaced that he’d taken it upon himself to ax the project. Yesterday Stephen McKeever, the vice president for research, tried to step in and explain. “The issue he was mostly concerned about was that he really did not want to attract controversy from the violent elements of various animal rights groups. He did not want to put OSU in that spotlight and so unnecessarily distract from or interfere with current research” [Science]. McKeever told Science that no one had specifically threatened OSU over the project, but that the university had never before hosted terminal primate research. He also issued the vague statement that the school “received confidential information, which it will not reveal in public, that made the president uncomfortable with this particular project” [New Scientist].
While animal rights organizations probably celebrated, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology balked (pdf). In a statement, the organization called OSU’s action disturbing, arguing that top-of-the-line labs like OSU’s that are capable of handling the safety and security issues inherent in anthrax testing need to be doing that critical research, not shunning it.
Not everyone bought the president’s explanation, either. Some faculty members have suggested that the decision to cancel the study might be linked to pressure from OSU benefactor T. Boone Pickens, whose wife Madeleine previously expressed disapproval of surgical training procedures involving animals in the university’s veterinary school. Spokespeople for both Pickens and the university deny the suggestion [Nature News]. Pickens has donated nearly $500 million to Oklahoma State in recent years, with more than half going to athletics. The Cowboys’ football field bears his name.
Oklahoma State’s faculty council meets this week to take up the issue, but veterinary scientist Richard Eberle suggested that the school had already lost credibility. “OSU is now seen by researchers at other institutions as an unreliable research partner and afraid of animal rights demonstrators,” Eberle said [The Oklahoman].
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