The University of Texas Medical Branch reached a $33,000 settlement with federal agencies involved in an investigation over the medical branch’s care of research animals.

The medical branch settled with the United States Department of Agriculture and the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare by implementing an improvement plan and paying a $33,000 fine to the agricultural department, which enforces the Animal Welfare Act.

The investigation stems from the findings of a Feb. 2015 audit of a medical branch study of monkeys injected with Marburg virus and a routine inspection in February involving guinea pigs and Ebola research.

The medical branch has changed its policies and procedures to address some of the issues found in the report, spokesman Raul Reyes said.

An animal-rights group monitoring the case called the $33,000 fine a “slap on the wrist” that does little to encourage reform.

A scathing audit conducted by agencies of the National Institutes of Health reported “serious animal welfare issues” in research performed by the laboratory in its study of the Marburg virus, which is related to Ebola and causes hemorrhagic fevers marked by severe bleeding, organ failure and, in many cases, death. The report was published in Feb. 2015.

The audit panned the Galveston National Laboratory for leaving 12 macaque monkeys unattended for up to 18 hours while infected with the deadly disease. Eight of the monkeys were found dead, the audit said.

A routine inspection by the USDA’s Animal Care Division in February revealed that 19 guinea pigs were found dead in their cage instead of having been properly euthanized during Ebola research, according to the inspection report.

Officials from the agricultural department visited the medical branch last year and called for several changes in the way researches monitor, evaluate and treat the animals. The agency also recommended communication improvements for notifying veterinarians when animals die or suffer in ways which aren’t expected in research protocols.

“The USDA believes that UTMB did not handle animals as carefully as possible, did not properly communicate with UTMB’s internal animal care committee before making changes in a study and that updated information was not provided to the former attending veterinarian,” Reyes said in a prepared statement.

In the past year, the medical branch has changed the leadership in its Animal Care and Use program, added four new veterinarians to the staff and increased training for staff who work with animals, officials said.

The medical branch has also enhanced oversight and monitoring authority by its Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and improved policies and procedures to guide investigative work with certain pathogens and animals, officials said.

“Our goal is to meet or exceed the very best practices around the country,” Reyes said.

An animal-rights organization closely following the case lambasted the settlement terms.

“A $33,000 fine is a paltry penalty for UTMB,” said Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now. “This penalty is not sufficient to compel UTMB to follow the law in the future. It is nothing more than a slap on the wrist.”

Contact reporter Marissa Barnett at 409-683-5257 or marissa.barnett@galvnews.com.

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