Safer Human Medicine holds private Q&A sessions with city officials, neighbors

Published 6:36 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2024

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The plans for Safer Human Medicine’s (SHM) primate breeding facility in Bainbridge are still progressing despite an admission of a legal error by the Decatur County Commissioners last week, grass-roots backlash from the local community and legal opposition from organizations like PETA and the Flint River Keepers. Executives from Safer Human Medicine held smaller, private question-and-answer sessions on Thursday. Members of the City Council, Chamber of Commerce, Development Authority of Bainbridge and Decatur County, the Humane Society and several local businesses were invited to attend the Thursday morning meeting held downtown, while a separate meeting for concerned citizens was held that afternoon at the Chamber of Commerce. Some attendees of the Thursday morning meeting have requested anonymity.

SHM President David Johst and CEO Jim Harkness represented the company. Harkness opened by giving his opinion on some of the arguments and concerns that have been raised by opponents, saying, “And some of it, you know, I would say we feel a little bit different about because, you know, we understand our program, we understand our facilities, and how it’s going to run. And some of the information that’s come out, you know, doesn’t necessarily represent that.”

Shortages of Non-human Primates

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One city council member asked about shortages of non-human primates for research, which has been brought up in coverage of the issue. Harkness responded that there were two main reasons for this.

“There’s two main drivers, one of it’s geopolitical,” he said. “So 25 years ago, just like a lot of microchips, and everything else, primate production was offshored to China… If you do any research, there’s a lot of articles that talk about time and strategy to become a scientific leader. So they’ve put millions, I’d say billions of dollars into science and research. And it was to a point where we were fighting each other, the Chinese researchers versus US, and the government kind of took COVID as an opportunity to say ‘We’re just gonna stop exporting them, and we’re just gonna a relocate everything to Chinese suppliers.’”

Harkness said these events hampered the supply. He then brought up the issue of Cambodian primate smuggling. Harkness previously worked at Envigo, and Johst at Charles River Laboratories, with both CRL and Envigo’s corporate owner Inotiv having since been involved in legal investigations due to involvement in smuggling of primates from Cambodia.

“And so I think you probably heard about just some of the practices of some of the players in Cambodia and the fact that they were selling, they were selling wild-caught animals as purpose-bred, right. So people were buying and thinking they were purposely bred, but they were actually animals that were wild-caught,” Harkness said. He argued this took roughly 75% of the supply of primates off the market. Johst added that SHM has had “dialogue” with the Department of Defense, “because they’re worried about it as a vulnerability for this country.”

Alternatives to primate testing

One city council member asked about the long-term market prospects of the non-human primate industry, with potential alternatives like cellular testing and AI.

“I think the easy answer is primate research is going to be here for probably our lifetime,” Harkness said. He argued that alternative methods like AI were not yet reliable, saying, “But I think in terms of like AI, I think what AI will do is over time, it will get better predictions, but you’ll still need to do the validation in the body before you go into human trials.”

Johst commented on the National Institute of Health looking to move away from animal testing, saying, “I guess I’d say that’s aspirational. That’s where they might like to be at some point. But the science isn’t there.”

Will Safer Human Medicine’s higher-ups live in Bainbridge?

One attendee asked if Johst and Harkness plan to move to Bainbridge. Harkness stated he plans to make Bainbridge his “hub”, citing family reasons such as his wife and kids as to why he could not move to Bainbridge full-time. Johst stated he was “in the same place” as Harkness, but made assurances that “We’re putting together a hiring plan, we have to have people who are gonna run the plant, who are gonna be the veterinarians, who are going to actually deal with all the day-to-day.”

What will happen if the primate industry is done away with?

One attendee asked what would happen to the thousands of monkeys if, in several years, primate testing was eliminated, and Safer Human Medicine go out of business.

Harkness asserted that SHM would be profitable in the first year, and that it would not take years to become profitable. He stated that, in the event the facility went out of business, “If something happened like that, a lot of these animals are going to be client-owned. They can be pharma clients, they can be others. So they’re not going to just, you know, walk away from them, they have pockets to, you know, take care of them.”

Harkness also said that, should primate testing be made irrelevant, “We would work with the industry and we build out a sanctuary or something where these animals would stay.”

How will deceased animals be disposed of?

A representative from the Humane Society posed the question of how would any deceased animals be disposed of, with another attendee asking if they would be cremated. According to Harkness and Johst, deceased animals would have a necropsy performed, placed in a biological waste bag, frozen, and then taken off-site to be incinerated by another service.

How many primates will the facility begin with, and how many will it grow to?

A representative from the Development Authority asked how many primates the facility would start out with, and how fast would the numbers increase. According to Harkness, in the first year, the facility would hold about 2,000 animals, and grow by between 1,000-2,000 a year. Harkness added that the buildings were expensive as they had certain capacities to meet. “And we’re going to do this in the way that we do it right, we’re not going to rush,” Harkness said. “We’re not going to try and do work before we have people ready. As a matter of fact, our plan is actually to hire more than we need.” The facility is expected to bring 263 jobs. Harkness also stated that it would be roughly 15 years before the facility holds 30,000 primates.

Where will the primates come from?

When asked where the primates come from, Harkness stated that the initial batch of animals would be purpose-bred from Asia. He asserted that the facilities the monkeys come from would be audited, and they would go through quarantine.

“These animals are tested from the time they’re born, all the way through the time they come here, they go through a 30 day quarantine there, there’s a reason for it, CDC, they want the 30 day quarantine because like COVID, or anything else, there’s usually no more than a 10 day incubation period,” Harkness said. He asserted that the primates would go through another CDC quarantine after arriving, and stated they would be continue to be monitored on-site.

“It’s something that, you know, we hear it, you know, ‘These animals bring disease,’ and so forth. They don’t, because for the research, they have to be very clean, pristine animals,” Harkness said. He further stated that SHM’s goal is “to protect the animals from everything that they can get from the environment, whether it’s from rodents, or whether it’s from bugs, whether it’s from birds.”

Are the buildings capable of standing up to weather like Hurricane Michael?

One attendee asked if the facility would be able to withstand 150 mph winds, such as what happened with Hurricane Michael. According to Harkness, the buildings are “rated to withstand a Category Four hurricane.” He began to make a remark about Bainbridge being far enough inland, though the attendee stated it was possible. Harkness and Johst went into more detail about the construction of containment area for the animals, saying that the walls would be concrete block. “And then if you look at the picture, you’ll see that there’s a fixed, you know, stainless steel openings, or, you know, containment on both. So even if the roof came off, those things are, I mean, locked down on the walls, so you have a secondary containment. So even if the roof is gone, the animals are still kind of in their holding area.” Johst mentioned that the animals would have access to natural light and air; Harkness would later clarify when asked that the end of each containment area would be high-tensile screen, and asserted there would also be some form of doors that could further enclose the containment area.

What if some of the primates manage to escape?

One attendee asked how the population would “be protected” in the event the buildings do not hold up to a storm. Harkness stressed the facility’s planned double-containment measures, as well as secondary containment measures around the site, like an electric fence, with “elements that will keep the monkeys from being able to, you know, scale and get outside.” Harkness also asserted, “The other thing I would say, and you know, there can always be an exception, but primates are very much creatures of habit.  So, if something like that happened, they’ll typically just stay right where they’re at, or in that area, because that’s where their food sources, that’s where their buddies are.”

When asked later on if, should a worst-case scenario occur and primates escape out and away from the facility, would the primates be micro-chipped for tracking, Harkness responded, “So, you know, we track every animal in our system, we know every animal that’s in our system. And so we have the ability to you know, if we had something we can go back and reconcile, you know, which animals are missing.” He further elaborated that, should primates escape into the surrounding area, SHM would notify local law enforcement to inform locals. As for those escaped primates, “So we would set up traps, we’re gonna have teams out looking for them. If they found them outside and they weren’t able to trap them, they would dart them.”

What about the waste and wastewater treatment?

Another pressing concern brought up was that of facility run-off and sewage treatment. Harkness stated that the floors would have an epoxy seal over the concrete “for regulatory reasons, just to make sure that you don’t have porous surfaces where you can’t disinfect appropriately.”

As for where the waste would go, “It’ll go into the normal sewer,” Harkness said. “Now we do do disinfecting when we do it. So there’s, you could argue, some pretreatment there, but everything that’s in it, I’d say, 95% of it is water.” He went on to assert that monkeys have a “very low” fecal load, stating that “when you’re washing down, it’s it’s largely all water.” Johst also said that, “We talked with local engineers, and the things that are being used to treat wastewater now, the waste system would kill anything,” adding he didn’t think there would be anything in there. “I read something about 440,000 gallons Olympic swimming pool stuff going in the river, it’s just not true.”

Harkness would later elaborate on this when asked again, describing the 440,000 figure as a “worst-case scenario”, saying, “So the numbers that you saw for wastewater would be if we had 200 acres of buildings full of animals, and every day we went in and wash down every one of those runs.” He would later say it would be “a third to half of that in 15 to 20 years.”

What about employment for locals?

One resident speaking on behalf of the Humane Society made the point that they have struggled to find kennel workers, and asked who would be doing the manual labor, be it locals or people brought in by SHM.

“So when we staff the facility, as Jim said, we’re going to do it over time,” Johst said. “So we’ll get ahead of it. Before we have the animals there, our first goal is going to be to hire and bring people in who actually had experience already working with primates.” He went on to say, “Then we’ll try and bring people in… people who are used to animals, people who, maybe college isn’t the right thing for them and they were thinking about a trade, maybe they’re thinking about HVAC, well let’s talk about, ‘Would you like to get involved in research?’” He said that new employees would be paired with a more experienced trainer: “So if you come in, and you’re a high school graduate from Bainbridge High School and you want to do this, we pair you up with somebody who’s been dealing with monkeys for 5, 6, 7 years, knows what they’re doing, and you work with them side by side for a while to understand what it means.”

How will the animals be transported to and from the facility?

When asked how the primates will be transported to the facility, SHM stated that a USDA-licensed carrier must be used. “So it’s not like Tom, Dick and Harry, you know, out on the street with a truck and trailer,” Harkness said. “ So they’re specialized vehicles that have redundant systems, you know, for not only their heating and air conditioning, but power.” He went on to say that the drivers also have to be trained to work with the primates, which would also be kept in individual crates, and that the trucks are supposed to stop every four hours to check the animals.

What about the effect on neighbors (property value, noise, smell)?

None of the neighbors that live near the sight were present at the Thursday morning meeting, again, with a separate meeting for concerned citizens held later that afternoon. When asked Thursday morning about the effect this would have on property values, Johst said, “Well, I don’t have a crystal ball.” He argued that the monkeys would make very little noise, as well as produce little smell. “If you’re thinking like on a hog farm or chicken farm, something like that, I don’t know why, but if you have a large population of non-human primates, they don’t generate a lot of odor,” he said. “And you know, if worse, comes to worse, and somebody really has a hard time, we’ll probably talk to them about buying their property. That’s the honest answer.”

Where does Safer Human Medicine’s funding come from?

One attendee asked where the funding for this venture is coming from. “So the folks that are backing us on the folks who can’t get the animals needed for research,” Johst said. “But it’s not, it’s not dark money. It’s certainly not, I know there was a facility someone tried to start up years ago that was China-backed. That’s not us.” He assured that the investors were “good, quality companies.”

“As an industry, as researchers, whether it’s Department of Defense, whether it’s NIH, whether it’s pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, everybody, the first time they all agree on one thing, which is thus us a big problem,” he said. “If we don’t have those animals, and China really shuts that spicket down and buys up everything out there, we have a problem with research.”

There was some confusion over Safer Human Medicine’s status as a Foreign Corporation, as listed on some business filings. While Safer Human Medicine has filings in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, it is registered in the state of Delaware. “Companies all over the country register in Delaware, because it’s the state that’s most used to deal with businesses,” Johst said.

What about the tax abatements?

When the topic of incentives and abatements was brought up, Harkness stated, “We’re not getting a single dollar given to us or anything from the county or whatever. All it is, is future abatements, so that when we build out buildings and create jobs for construction, when you take the taxes for hiring people, and the benefit that comes into the city and county, then we in essence, get a break on what we would have to pay on taxes because it’s creating other revenue streams coming in. So we only get any break, if we deliver on our commitments in terms of you know, the construction, hiring, that sort of thing.”

“If we don’t meet the commitments that we made in terms of jobs and in terms of putting capital in this community, we don’t get those benefits, and we shouldn’t,” Johst said.

What about SHM executive’s prior record?

A talking point that recurred throughout the discussion was the importance of the animals being kept in pristine condition and their market value. This led to Harkness being asked about his prior record as COO of Envigo, a company that also breeds research animals; the Department of Justice shut down the company’s Cumberland beagle mill in 2022 during his tenure, with thousands of dogs being rescued from negligent conditions.

“So there’s always a lot of slant, as we’ve seen on everything that is going on with this one,” Harkness said, “and so the real picture doesn’t always get laid out.” Harkness asserted that, due to COVID and shut downs, “all of the demand for the beagles basically went away.”

“A lot of research facilities basically shut down, and you know, they euthanize their mice, and their rats and so forth because they didn’t have people to take care of them. We had to stay open,” he said. Harkness stated that he chose not to euthanize the Envigo beagles, saying, “It’s not the right thing to do for the dogs, we’ll figure it out.” He argued that the facility suffered staff shortages brought on by the pandemic, and that Enviro made efforts to donate dogs to vet schools.

“Most of the animal adoption groups, I’m gonna say didn’t like us, all right” Harkness asserted, “So they didn’t want to do work with us, they didn’t feel that it was something that they wanted to associate with. So there was never any love lost between the two. We actually took the step to work with them, and we adopted out a lot of the dogs.”

Other issues were addressed, such as the possibility of businesses being deterred from coming to Bainbridge by this business, as well as the public backlash, with criticism leveled at PETA’s involvement by both city council members and SHM. Some local officials continued to liken the operation to farming, with one city official saying, “We’ve been raising healthy animals in Decatur County since 1900.”