Bainbridge Rotary Clubs hears from Safer Human Medicine

Published 9:38 am Wednesday, February 7, 2024

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Members of the Bainbridge Rotary Club gathered at the Kirbo Center on Tuesday for their weekly lunch meeting. The guest speakers of the day were Jim Harkness and Kurt Derfler of Safer Human Medicine.

Harkness spoke first, mentioning the decision by the Industrial Development Authority last week to rescind the bond agreement for the company’s proposed primate breeding facility. “I would say we were disappointed in those results,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but we’re committed and passionate about what we do.”

Harkness first spoke about the need for testing for drugs, citing the use of primates in testing around thalidomide in the late 1950s- early 1960s as an example. He reiterated the genetic similarity of non-human primates and humans for use in testing, and asserted that computer models, which have been proposed as an alternative to animal testing, is “just not there yet.”

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Harkens went on to argue for the need for primates in testing, focusing on the outsourcing of primate breeding overseas, and disruption to the supply chain. He also stated that the company had $40 million of committed work, and would be profitable in year one.

After Harkness, Derfler spoke, showing concept art of the proposed facilities. Derfler asserted that the buildings would be able to withstand a Category 4 hurricane.

“The building is designed so that wind will pass through it,” he said, “that’s further going to reduce the risk that there’s gonna be pressure and the roof is gonna come off.”

Derfler also spoke on the facility’s dual-door system intended to reduce the likelihood of escape. He also discussed that the facility’s waste would be treated at the city wastewater treatment plant.

Derfler went into detail about the primate’s enclosures, stating that they will be comprised of steel beams and cinder blocks. He also stated the enclosures will be self-contained within the facility, with beams both overhead should the roof come off, as well as a corridor between the enclosure and the building’s screen exterior.

Derfler also spoke on the project’s projected impact on home values and concerns over noise and smell, arguing that was not the case. He cited a primate holding facility in a neighborhood near Atlanta as his example. “I can sit up here and say, ‘Trust us, your home values are gonna be fine, you won’t smell anything, there won’t be a ton of noise,’ but I can point to another example in Georgia where it is fine,” Derfler said.

After Derfler spoke, Harkness took to the podium again to briefly discuss the jobs and wages that will be offered at the facility, “starting out at $20 an hour, all the way to jobs that are paying close to $200,000.”

Following the pair’s presentation, they took questions from the audience. One Rotarian asked if they were “aware that the vast majority of citizens in Decatur County do not want y’all to come here?”

Harkness responded, “I would say we are aware that there are citizens that are not in favor, but I would also say we’ve met a lot of people that are. They’re not necessarily vocal about it, and so I think that’s why we’re taking the time to share who we are and what we’re doing, because I think as we hear from people that are against it, there’s a lot of misinformation that they’re building their understanding around.”

When asked how many primates the facility would hold at first, and how long it would take to reach the proposed 30,000 primates, Derfler said that the project would start at around 500 to 1,000, and it would take years to reach the maximum number.

Another Rotarian asked how old primates needed to be before being sold for use in testing, with Derfler stating they would be between two and three years old.

When asked if there was any government support to onshore the primate breeding industry, Harkness stated they had had discussions with the Department of Defense, though their major backing was pharmaceuticals.

Another Rotarian asked if SHM has “possession” of the 200 acres the facility is to be built on. Harkness responded there were “some questions that still have to be done. In theory, we have all the approvals that need to be done, there’s some, I’d say, last-minute logistics or things we have to work through with various parties, so there is still some work to be done, but it’s not fully resolved yet.”

Another Rotarian asked about the possibility of foreign investment, and any ways to prevent foreign investment. Harkness said that all of the company’s investment was U.S.-based. Harkness went on to say that the reason SHM is listed on some filings as a foreign entity is the fact that the company is registered in Delaware, outside of the state of Georgia. “We have zero dollars coming from outside the US, I can say that with certainty.”

SHM was also asked about the recent decisions by some local government boards to revoke their various incentive agreements for the project.

“When something is passed by the circuit judge,” Harkness said, “around the incentives, in theory, it’s final, it can’t be undone. So there’s some, you know, work that needs to be done to get some clarity, probably even within the courts.” He went on to say that, “We’re not looking to start all over, I’d say the timelines are too tight, the need is too great, and to start all over doesn’t work for a lot of different stakeholders. So we’re gonna continue to move forward, try and have discussions like this, help people better understand who we are and what we’re doing.”

When asked about the risks of the site flooding, being in a low-lying area close to the Flint River, Harkness said they had “done some work with geo-technicals” and that they didn’t see it as an issue. “Even if it did flood, the way our buildings are designed… again with the walls coming up, etcetera, no impact there.” Derfler added there would be drainage incorporated on the site.

Another question was asked: “Are y’all planning to go forward if you do not get any of the governmental incentives?”

“If that’s the way that we need to look at it, it’s definitely something we would look at,” Harkness said, asserting that would benefit the county and city more, and that the current tax abatement agreements only apply if SHM meets certain milestones.

Following these questions, the meeting was adjourned.