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USF Halts, Restarts West Nile Research Following Animal Deaths

A pair of zebra finches at Bird Kingdom in Ontario, Canada. Similar birds died during research into the West Nile Virus at USF.
Niagara Falls Aviary, via Wikipedia
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The University of South Florida temporarily stopped one researcher's work with the West Nile Virus earlier this year after eight birds died during the research.

According to a statement from USF, that work has since been restarted after the issues involved were addressed.

(SAEN), an Ohio-based organization that monitors research facilities for animal abuse, said four projects were suspended "due to a bungled protocol and failure to document sanitation of the satellite facility where the projects were performed."

According to a letter from officials with USF Research and Innovation to the National Institutes of Health, a self-review found that zebra finches being used in West Nile research weren't being monitored twice daily as required.

In addition, the way a number of the birds were euthanized differed from the method described in approved protocol. Also, the satellite facility where the work was being conducted appeared cluttered.

The name of the principal investigator was not disclosed.

USF officials responded with requests for more information about the matter with this statement:

During a routine self-inspection in October 2016, a University of South Florida veterinarian discovered possible noncompliance with the protocols of one researcher’s West Nile projects that involved eight birds.  Following the university’s standard procedure, the matter was self-reported to the appropriate USF oversight committee and federal agencies.  After a review of the circumstances, it was determined that there was deviation from the research protocol.  As a result, a total of four West Nile projects being conducted by the same researcher at one facility were temporarily suspended.  In January 2017, the federal agencies notified USF that they have accepted the corrective steps put in place by the university and consider the matter closed.  West Nile studies have now resumed.   

As an institution, USF believes in the respectful and ethical treatment of animals in research projects.  The university has a vigorous review and training process.  USF will continue to abide by all state and federal laws and guidelines.  

Officials from SAEN, who say they found the information in government records, have asked USF System President Judy Genshaft to end the project and revoke the research privileges for the principal investigator.

"Negligence in USF labs has botched West Nile Virus projects and potentially endangered public safety," said SEAN Executive Director Michael Budkie. "These unsafe experiments must be permanently ended and the responsible staff should be prohibited from further endangering the public."

SAEN had previously filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Sept. 2014, alleging USF researchers denied water on two separate occasions to monkeys involved in a study of obesity and diabetes.

Four monkeys had to be treated by a veterinarian - treatment that was not reported as required - and one had to be euthanized.

The university self-reported those incidents to the National Institutes of Health, which took no further actions against USF.

In addition, USF closed the primary researcher's projects and revoked the animal research privileges of all the researchers involved. The primary researcher's identity was never disclosed.

Copyright 2017 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Mark Schreiner has been the producer and reporter for "University Beat" on WUSF 89.7 FM since 2001 and on WUSF TV from 2007-2017.