BiosafetyOSU president Burns Hargis defends anthrax research cancellation decision

Published 11 December 2009

Hargis had ended an anthrax vaccine research project at OSU because it would have resulted in euthanizing baboons; he says he did not bow to pressures from animal rights activists – or from the wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, both OSU alumni and major donors to the school.

Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis told faculty last week that he erred in not talking to OSU scientists before quashing a research project that involved euthanizing baboons. Hargis said he was not influenced by animal rights activists but said his decision was complicated and there were “confidential factors” that he couldn’t discuss. “To go through every lurid detail is simply not prudent,” he told the OSU Faculty Council. He said not speaking first to campus scientists was a “rookie mistake” and pledged better communication with researchers.

Hargis said he spoke to outside scientists and universities before deciding last month to prevent research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that would have tested anthrax treatments and vaccines on live baboons, which later would be euthanized. The baboons were not yet at OSU’s veterinary medicine biosecurity lab, and the project had not yet been funded.

Susan Simpson writes that OSU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee had approved the projects after months of study. That committee asked the OSU Faculty Council to consider a resolution asking Hargis to talk with them and scientists directly involved in projects before shutting down research. The resolution was referred to a faculty council committee.

Charlotte Ownby, chairperson of the animal care and use group, said scientists feel Hargis bowed to political views and external pressure when making his decision.

Hargis said he is committed to OSU’s research mission and his decision has no bearing on other projects. “There’s the sense that the president is arbitrary and capricious and anti-research,” Hargis said. “That is absolutely untrue.” Hargis said other research involving bioterrorism and lethal pathogens would continue at Oklahoma State University.

The baboon research started at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, but was to be moved to OSU’s new Level 3 biosecurity lab, the only one in the state.

Simpson writes that the project’s lead investigator, Shinichiro Kurosawa, was at OMRF but now is at Boston University, where he is seeking a new site for the baboon lab, according to a statement from the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Extramural Research.

Although the NIH had not yet funded OSU’s part of the project, it had expectations OSU would follow through on its commitment, the statement said. “NIH fully expects institutions to honor these assurances and commitment to complete NIH supported projects as requested, approved and funded, whether they are a direct recipient or a subawardee on a special project.”

In April OSU announced that animals will no longer be euthanized in teaching labs at the veterinary school. Controversy about euthanizing animals after students performed surgeries on them arose after Madeleine Pickens threatened to redirect a $5 million donation to the vet school because she did not agree with such practices.

OSU officials said Pickens, wife of billionaire benefactor T. Boone Pickens, had no say on stopping the research involving the baboons. She does endorse the new policy on her Web site, where she offers “kudos for a great decision” and posts a story about the controversy.