Scientists who design medicines often rely on primates to test new drugs. But at the moment, these research monkeys are in short supply.
To help meet that demand, biomedical company Charles River Laboratories has plans for a large facility in Southeast Texas. But locals aren’t thrilled about the idea.
Nidhi Subbaraman, science reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spoke to the Texas Standard about the conflict in Brazoria County.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Charles River Labs – I want to associate that with Boston because of the Charles River. Where exactly does Charles River Labs want to build this facility?
Nidhi Subbaraman: Charles River, you’re right: They’re actually headquartered out of Wilmington, Massachusetts, not too far from the Charles River itself. They want to build a facility in Brazoria County in a 500-something-acre plot of land.
In fact, you report that many of the lab’s would-be neighbors are unhappy about the prospects here. Could you say more about the plans? Are they talking about building some kind of new facility in a residential area, or what exactly?
My understanding is that this area of Texas is fairly sparsely populated; it’s remote. So the landowners either directly adjacent to this property or next to it are worried about diseases that might be picked up from the monkeys by mosquitoes or ticks.
They’re worried about their land value dropping. They’re worried that the region is prone to flooding because it’s low-lying and saw some amount of inundation during Hurricane Harvey, and how would such a facility hold up under those circumstances?
They’re a bit concerned that they didn’t really hear about the plans for the facility at length early on when the land was purchased. And they’re kind of piecing together the story with some help from [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals], who they contacted – an organization that has a reputation for being against animal research.
You mention that this is a pretty flood-prone area, and I think a lot of residents would would concur. What have the experts at Charles River Labs had to say about that prospect?
The executives from Charles River met with local officials in mid-December and were informed about the flood risks. And they said at the meeting – and they told me – that they’re now reconsidering plans and evaluating those concerns more fully. So at the moment, their plans are on hold.
Is it clear why Charles River Labs chose this area for primate research?
Well, they told me that there were a few different reasons. They have another facility in Houston, so this would be potentially something that was close by. They were looking for a community where you have people already working with animals and agriculture – potentially this would be palatable to people who already work in this space. Those were some of the reasons that they gave.
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What about political figures? Did you hear from any officials in the area about their concerns?
I did. I spoke with Commissioner David Linder, who is a county commissioner at Brazoria County. I spoke with Representative Cody Vasut, who represents western and southern Brazoria County in the Texas Legislature. And they both said they’ve been getting calls and letters and messages from people in the area, and everybody seems to be opposed to this project.
Representative Cody Vasut sent a letter to the company asking for more information. Commissioner Linda was part of the Brazoria County Commissioners Court that passed a resolution opposing the facility and asking that state and federal agencies deny any permits issued to the company.
Now, I should say, in speaking with the company, I did hear from their chief operating officer, and she said she acknowledged that the company should have reached out to local officials, tell them their plans and reach out to the community as well and spell out their reasons for having animal research in the first place and also what kind of facility they had in mind for this region of Brazoria County.
Isn’t that a big part of it there – what kind of facility? Because it’s not like we’re talking about a couple of dozen monkeys or primates being held at this facility. It’s my understanding that they’re talking about 43,000 monkeys?
That number has certainly gotten people talking and has caught the attention of the neighborhood and the region. That was a number that was spelled out in plans for the facility in sort of preliminary site plan layouts shared with the county in pre-planning conversations.
The company now tells me that their current plan is for 8,600 monkeys – so a lot less than 43,000. They say that was an initial maximum estimate. And now what they’re thinking about is closer to sort of this 8,600 capacity for the facility.
So it sounds like the crux of this at this juncture is that there are a lot of neighbors feeling like they’re just now hearing about this and not really having a good sense of how this could affect property values or their neighborhoods or their communities, in large part because the company hasn’t been forthcoming with details.
That’s right. They were certainly taken by surprise, and concern sprang from that. And the company has acknowledged that they should have spoken up sooner than they have.
What happens next?
Next, we’re expecting Charles River Labs to evaluate the flood risk for the site, as they have told officials and they told me they would. I think some of the neighbors are still waiting to hear from the company itself as far as those plans directly, because the initial meeting that was had with local officials was not open to the public. And by this point, a lot of residents have some information but have many more questions.