Thursday, May 10, 2018

Set the Doomsday Clock to Rage Monkey O'clock

There is an update in the decades-long saga of Tulane University's  mission to bring death to us all via a scientifically engineered monkey-borne pathogen.  Please take a minute from your busy morning of boiling your breathing air for the day and consider the following.

The story stretches back to the 1960s when the Tulane National Primate Research Center opened on a 500 acre plot of land near Covington where it has been making monkeys ill in various ways for science ever since.
Even in its first few decades, research at the center stirred some controversy. In the mid-1980s, activists complained about monkeys at the center being spun at high rates of speed and having their vomiting rated in experiments that were part of the space program. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, concerns were raised over three monkeys that, as part of experiments on spinal cord injuries, had nerves cut that cost them the use of their arms and legs; their brains also were pierced with electrodes.
In addition to spinning the monkeys at high rates of speed, the center also uses them for "basic and applied biomedical research on human health problems using nonhuman primate models." The center's website lists twelve, "diseases we investigate," here. I'm not an expert in microbiology so I'm not sure if any of those twelve relates to this particular bacterium but we do know it was definitely present at the facility in 2015 because...
An animal clinic worker at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington has tested positive for exposure to a potentially deadly bacterium that escaped from a high-security lab at the center and infected several monkeys, officials said Wednesday evening.

The results of blood tests on the worker showed antibodies consistent with exposure to Burkholderia pseudomallei, which is native to southeast Asia and Australia and can cause melioidosis, a potentially fatal disease.

The worker’s blood had barely enough antibodies to trigger a positive result, and further tests are needed to confirm the initial positive reading, according to a statement from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Confirmation could be received as early as next week.
We also know the center conducts research on Zika and Ebola which we learned from this article last year when the man in charge died suddenly at age 57 after a "brief illness."  That's probably a tragic coincidence, of course, but it's worth keeping in mind that this is definitely a facility where accidents are known to happen.

We've noticed a few of them over the years beginning in 1998 when 24 monkeys ran loose for three days after defeating the security system by "jiggling the lock." 
Twenty-four Indian rhesus monkeys housed at the Tulane Primate Center in St. Tammany Parish escaped on Oct. 18.

All but one of the monkeys were recovered three days later. One female monkey is unaccounted for.

According to Dr. Peter Gerone, director of the Primate Center, the monkeys are housed in a quarter-acre chain-link catch pen that encloses a smaller pen. By jiggling the lock, the monkeys apparently opened the gate which leads from the chain-link catch pen to the outside.
The article about the jiggling incident also notes previous episodes where the monkeys were sprung with a little help from the outside. 
No large escapes involving a number of monkeys have occurred at the center since 1997, and these two previous large escapes were due to vandals cutting the wires of the pen.
There were, "no signs of vandalism," however in 2003 when another two dozen monkeys escaped into the woods.  The emergency crew snapped into action... until they got tired, I guess.
COVINGTON, Louisiana (AP) -- Two dozen monkeys escaped from a research center and holed up in a forest, where animal-control workers used bananas and oranges to try to lure them out.

The monkeys are classified as disease-free and posed no health risk to humans, but workers trying to capture the animals wore protective gowns and gloves as a standard precaution, said Fran Simon, a spokeswoman for the Tulane Regional Primate Center.

By Wednesday, eight of the 24 rhesus macaques remained on the loose.

"When they get hungry enough, they'll come back," Simon said.
Let's assume they got hungry and came back. That's better than getting hungry and going on a deadly rampage, right? Anyway two years later it happened again. I'd love to link to the original story for you but it's not even available via the Wayback Machine. Link rot is going to destroy civilization if the death monkeys don't get us first. The good news is, I've been on this beat long enough to have preserved some of it.
COVINGTON -- More than 50 monkeys escaped from the Tulane Primate Center late Monday evening, leaving authorities with the daunting task of tracking down and catching the animals.

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, officials said 47 of the monkeys had been captured while 6 managed to continue to elude authorities by hiding in the heavily wooded along Three Rivers Road.

Mike Aertker, spokesman for the Primate Center, said the monkeys were being used solely for breeding purposes, and had not been subjected to experiments of any kind.
"More than 50" this time. If anything, the problem was getting worse. The KATC version of the story (preserved in part here) tells us the monkeys had by this time, in fact, learned to outsmart security protocol.
The monkeys had observed how the cage was opened and closed and apparently used that knowledge to their advantage
Since then, the most notable incident at the facility is the 2015 bacterial containment crisis we mentioned. 

That is until today when we learned that everything is definitely fine.
A WWL listener said he went there this morning. "I went there to make a delivery," he explained. "The lady told me; 'The place is on lockdown, come back in an hour.'"

The delivery man explained that he did notice some unusual activity. "I looked around, and there were police all up and down the street on every corner." He said there were also apparent staff members outside at the center. "There were people in the woods, looking up in the trees." the listener explained. "That made me think they were looking for one of the monkeys."

We called the center and a man who refused to identify himself said, "Everything is fine." When we asked for his name and further information, he said we would have to contact the press office at Tulane and hung up the phone.
Tulane PR later emailed WWL to tell them that one monkey had gotten free but has been rounded up.  How often is everything really this fine up there? We'll probably never know until the day the mutant rage monkeys swarm down to eat our faces which, frankly, might not be the worst thing that could happen at this point.

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