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Elon Musk’s Neuralink faces federal probe, worker backlash

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Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a medical device company, is under federal investigation for potential animal-welfare violations amid internal staff complaints that its animal testing is being rushed, causing useless suffering and deaths, based on documents reviewed by Reuters and sources aware of the investigation and company operations.

Neuralink is developing a brain implant it hopes will help paralyzed people walk again and cure other neurological ailments. The federal probe, which has not been previously reported, was opened in recent months by the US Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General on the request of a federal prosecutor, based on two sources with knowledge of the investigation.

The probe, one among the sources said, focuses on violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs how researchers treat and test some animals.

The investigation has come at a time of growing worker dissent about Neuralink’s animal testing, including complaints that pressure from CEO Musk to speed up development has resulted in botched experiments, based on a Reuters review of dozens of Neuralink documents and interviews with greater than 20 current and former employees. Such failed tests have needed to be repeated, increasing the variety of animals being tested and killed, the workers say. The corporate documents include previously unreported messages, audio recordings, emails, presentations and reports.

The investigation has come at a time of growing worker dissent about Neuralink’s animal testing, including complaints that pressure from Elon Musk to speed up development has resulted in botched experiments.Neuralink/YouTube

Musk and other Neuralink executives didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Reuters couldn’t determine the total scope of the federal investigation or whether it involved the identical alleged problems with animal testing identified by employees in Reuters interviews. A spokesperson for the USDA inspector general declined to comment. US regulations don’t specify what number of animals firms can use for research, they usually give significant leeway to scientists to find out when and find out how to use animals in experiments. Neuralink has passed all USDA inspections of its facilities, regulatory filings show.

In all, the corporate has killed about 1,500 animals, including greater than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys, following experiments since 2018, based on records reviewed by Reuters and sources with direct knowledge of the corporate’s animal-testing operations. The sources characterised that figure as a rough estimate because the corporate doesn’t keep precise records on the variety of animals tested and killed. Neuralink has also conducted research using rats and mice.

The entire variety of animal deaths doesn’t necessarily indicate that Neuralink is violating regulations or standard research practices. Many firms routinely use animals in experiments to advance human health care, they usually face financial pressure to quickly bring products to market. The animals are typically killed when experiments are accomplished, often in order that they might be examined post-mortem for research purposes.

But current and former Neuralink employees say the variety of animal deaths is higher than it must be for reasons related to Musk’s demands to hurry research. Through company discussions and documents spanning several years, together with worker interviews, Reuters identified 4 experiments involving 86 pigs and two monkeys that were marred lately by human errors. The mistakes weakened the experiments’ research value and required the tests to be repeated, resulting in more animals being killed, three of the present and former staffers said. The three people attributed the mistakes to an absence of preparation by a testing staff working in a pressure-cooker environment.

Department of Agriculture headquartersA federal probe was opened in recent months by the US Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General on the request of a federal prosecutor.Getty Images

One worker, in a message seen by Reuters, wrote an indignant missive earlier this yr to colleagues concerning the must overhaul how the corporate organizes animal surgeries to stop “hack jobs.” The rushed schedule, the worker wrote, resulted in under-prepared and over-stressed staffers scrambling to satisfy deadlines and making last-minute changes before surgeries, raising risks to the animals.

Musk has pushed hard to speed up Neuralink’s progress, which depends heavily on animal testing, current and former employees said. Earlier this yr, the chief executive sent staffers a news article about Swiss researchers who developed an electrical implant that helped a paralyzed man to walk again. “We could enable people to make use of their hands and walk again in every day life!” he wrote to staff at 6:37 a.m. Pacific Time on Feb. 8. Ten minutes later, he followed up: “On the whole, we’re simply not moving fast enough. It’s driving me nuts!”

On several occasions over time, Musk has told employees to assume they’d a bomb strapped to their heads in an effort to get them to maneuver faster, based on three sources who repeatedly heard the comment. On one occasion a couple of years ago, Musk told employees he would trigger a “market failure” at Neuralink unless they made more progress, a comment perceived by some employees as a threat to shut down operations, based on a former staffer who heard his comment.

Five individuals who’ve worked on Neuralink’s animal experiments told Reuters they’d raised concerns internally. They said they’d advocated for a more traditional testing approach, during which researchers would test one element at a time in an animal study and draw relevant conclusions before moving on to more animal tests. As a substitute, these people said, Neuralink launches tests in quick succession before fixing issues in earlier tests or drawing complete conclusions. The result: More animals overall are tested and killed, partly since the approach results in repeated tests.

Test conducted on a monkey,Current and former Neuralink employees say the variety of animal deaths is higher than it must be for reasons related to Musk’s demands to hurry research.Neuralink/YouTube

One former worker who asked management several years ago for more deliberate testing was told by a senior executive it wasn’t possible given Musk’s demands for speed, the worker said. Two people told Reuters they left the corporate over concerns about animal research.

The issues with Neuralink’s testing have raised questions internally concerning the quality of the resulting data, three current or former employees said. Such problems could potentially delay the corporate’s bid to begin human trials, which Musk has said the corporate desires to do inside the subsequent six months. In addition they add to a growing list of headaches for Musk, who’s facing criticism of his management of Twitter, which he recently acquired for $44 billion. Musk also continues to run electric carmaker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX.

The Food and Drug Administration is answerable for reviewing the corporate’s applications for approval of its medical device and associated trials. The corporate’s treatment of animals during research, nevertheless, is regulated by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act. The FDA didn’t immediately comment.

Missed deadlines, botched experiments

Musk’s impatience with Neuralink has grown as the corporate, which launched in 2016, has missed his deadlines on several occasions to win regulatory approval to begin clinical trials in humans, based on company documents and interviews with eight current and former employees.

Some Neuralink rivals are having more success. Synchron, which was launched in 2016 and is developing a distinct implant with less ambitious goals for medical advances, received FDA approval to begin human trials in 2021. The corporate’s device has allowed paralyzed people to text and sort by pondering alone. Synchron has also conducted tests on animals, however it has killed only about 80 sheep as a part of its research, based on studies of the Synchron implant reviewed by Reuters. Musk approached Synchron a few potential investment, Reuters reported in August.

Synchron declined to comment.

Screenshot from Neuralink presentationMusk’s impatience with Neuralink has grown as the corporate, which launched in 2016, has missed his deadlines on several occasions. Above, a screenshot from the Nov. 30 Neuralink presentation.Neuralink/YouTube

In some ways, Neuralink treats animals quite well in comparison with other research facilities, employees said in interviews, echoing public statements by Musk and other executives. Company leaders have boasted internally of constructing a “Monkey Disneyland” in the corporate’s Austin, Texas facility where lab animals can roam, a former worker said. In the corporate’s early years, Musk told employees he wanted the monkeys at his San Francisco Bay Area operation to live in a “monkey Taj Mahal,” said a former worker who heard the comment. One other former worker recalled Musk saying he disliked using animals for research but desired to ensure they were “the happiest animals” while alive.

The animals have fared less well, nevertheless, when utilized in the corporate’s research, current and former employees say.

The primary complaints concerning the company’s testing involved its initial partnership with University of California, Davis, to conduct the experiments. In February, an animal rights group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, filed a criticism with the USDA accusing the Neuralink-UC Davis project of botching surgeries that killed monkeys and publicly released its findings. The group alleged that surgeons used the mistaken surgical glue twice, which led to 2 monkeys suffering and ultimately dying, while other monkeys had different complications from the implants.

The corporate has acknowledged it killed six monkeys, on the recommendation of UC Davis veterinary staff, due to health problems attributable to experiments. It called the problem with the glue a “complication” from the usage of an “FDA-approved product.” In response to a Reuters inquiry, a UC Davis spokesperson shared a previous public statement defending its research with Neuralink and saying it followed all laws and regulations.

Screenshot from Neuralink presentationScreenshot from a Nov. 30 presentation the corporate broadcast on YouTube.Neuralink/YouTube

A federal prosecutor within the Northern District of California referred the animal rights group’s criticism to the USDA Inspector General, which has since launched a proper probe, based on a source with direct knowledge of the investigation. USDA investigators then inquired concerning the allegations involving the UC Davis monkey research, based on two sources aware of the matter and emails and messages reviewed by Reuters.

The probe is worried with the testing and treatment of animals in Neuralink’s own facilities, one among the sources said, without elaborating. In 2020, Neuralink brought this system in-house, and has since built its extensive facilities in California and Texas.

A spokesperson for the US attorney’s office for the Northern District of California declined to comment.

Delcianna Winders, director of the Animal Law and Policy Institute on the Vermont Law and Graduate School, said it’s “very unusual” for the USDA inspector general to analyze animal research facilities. Winders, an animal-testing opponent who has criticized Neuralink, said the inspector general has primarily focused lately on dog fighting and cockfighting actions when applying the Animal Welfare Act.

‘It’s hard on the little piggies’

The mistakes resulting in unnecessary animal deaths included one instance in 2021, when 25 out of 60 pigs in a study had devices that were the mistaken size implanted of their heads, an error that would have been avoided with more preparation, based on an individual with knowledge of the situation and company documents and communications reviewed by Reuters.

The error raised alarms amongst Neuralink’s researchers. In May 2021, Viktor Kharazia, a scientist, wrote to colleagues that the error could possibly be a “red flag” to FDA reviewers of the study, which the corporate planned to submit as a part of its application to start human trials. His colleagues agreed, and the experiment was repeated with 36 sheep, based on the person with knowledge of the situation. All of the animals, each the pigs and the sheep, were killed after the procedures, the person said.

Tests conducted on a monkey.In all, the corporate has killed about 1,500 animals, including greater than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys, following experiments since 2018, based on records reviewed by Reuters and sources with direct knowledge of the corporate’s animal-testing operations. Neuralink/YouTube

Kharazia didn’t comment in response to requests.

On one other occasion, staff unintentionally implanted Neuralink’s device on the mistaken vertebra of two different pigs during two separate surgeries, based on two sources with knowledge of the matter and documents reviewed by Reuters. The incident frustrated several employees who said the mistakes – on two separate occasions – could have easily been avoided by fastidiously counting the vertebrae before inserting the device.

Company veterinarian Sam Baker advised his colleagues to right away kill one among the pigs to finish her suffering.

“Based on low likelihood of full recovery … and her current poor psychological well-being, it was decided that euthanasia was the one appropriate plan of action,” Baker wrote colleagues about one among the pigs a day after the surgery, adding a broken heart emoji.

Baker didn’t comment on the incident.

Employees have sometimes pushed back on Musk’s demands to maneuver fast. In an organization discussion several months ago, some Neuralink employees protested after a manager said that Musk had encouraged them to do a posh surgery on pigs soon. The staff resisted on the grounds that the surgery’s complexity would lengthen the period of time the pigs could be under anesthesia, risking their health and recovery. They argued they need to first work out find out how to cut down the time it could take to do the surgery.

“It’s hard on the little piggies,” one among the workers said, referring to the lengthy period under anesthesia.

In September, the corporate responded to worker concerns about its animal testing by holding a town hall to elucidate its processes. It soon after opened up the meetings to staff of its federally-mandated board that reviews the animal experiments.

Neuralink executives have said publicly that the corporate tests animals only when it has exhausted other research options, but documents and company messages suggest otherwise. During a Nov. 30 presentation the corporate broadcast on YouTube, for instance, Musk said surgeries were used at a later stage of the method to verify that the device works moderately than to check early hypotheses. “We’re extremely careful,” he said, to ensure that testing is “confirmatory, not exploratory,” using animal testing as a final resort after trying other methods.

In October, a month before Musk’s comments, Autumn Sorrells, the top of animal care, ordered employees to wash “exploration” from study titles retroactively and stop using it in the longer term.

Sorrells didn’t comment in response to requests.

Neuralink records reviewed by Reuters contained quite a few references over several years to exploratory surgeries, and three individuals with knowledge of the corporate’s research strongly rejected the assertion that Neuralink avoids exploratory tests on animals. Company discussions reviewed by Reuters showed several employees expressing concerns about Sorrells’ request to vary exploratory study descriptions, saying it could be inaccurate and misleading.

One noted that the request seemed designed to supply “higher optics” for Neuralink.

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