Neuralink investigated allegedly transporting contaminated devices removed from monkey brains

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Elon Musk’s brain implant company is under investigation by the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) after allegations emerged today that it may have illegally transported devices containing pathogens removed from monkeys.

An animal welfare group expressed concern in a letter sent today to the USDOT asking it to investigate Musk’s company Neuralink “for violations of the federal law on the transportation of hazardous materials and fine it accordingly.”

Neuralink aims to develop a device capable of controlling a computer when implanted in the brain. But Neuralink is already facing a federal investigation over previous allegations of animal cruelty and hasty experiments that led to unnecessary deaths.

“We take these allegations very seriously”

The letter was written by the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit organization that advocates against the use of animals in medical research. It’s the same nonprofit that last year alleged that Neuralink violated animal welfare law in its treatment of animals used to test its technology.

Neuralink poses “a serious and ongoing risk to public health” by mishandling implants removed from monkeys, the group says in the letter, which was obtained by Reuters. For example, the implants may be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant staphylococci, herpes B virus and other pathogens. Neuralink employees “appear to have packaged and transported those contaminated materials in an unsafe manner,” possibly because the employees did not receive legally required safety training.

“We take these allegations very seriously,” said a USDOT spokesperson The edge in an email about PCRM’s letter. “We are conducting an investigation to ensure that Neuralink is in full compliance with federal regulations and to protect their employees and the public from potentially dangerous pathogens.”

Musk revealed in 2019 that Neuralink implanted his device into a monkey that could then “control a computer with its brain.” Since then, Neuralink has shown videos of monkeys seemingly playing video games and spelling words using the devices placed in their heads. Neuralink has also placed implants in pigs.

Despite those experiments, Neuralink is lagging far behind in testing the devices in humans. That goal was previously set for 2020 and has since been pushed back to possibly sometime this year. Missed deadlines have reportedly increased pressure on researchers to speed up their work at the risk of harming the animals they work with. Now it seems that haste can also endanger people.

This month, PCRM obtained communication between Neuralink and its former partner, the University of California, Davis, about how to handle devices removed from animals. UC Davis staff “have repeatedly raised concerns” about how Neuralink took and returned explanted devices from the California National Primate Research Center in 2019, according to PCRM.

“This poses a danger to anyone who might come into contact with the device.”

“Since the hardware components of the explanted neural device have not been sealed and it has not been disinfected before leaving the primate center, this poses a danger to anyone who may come into contact with the device. Calling it simply “dangerous” does not take into account the risk of potentially contracting Herpes B,” reads an email sent in March 2019. It was sent by someone who was “probably a UC Davis employee,” according to the letter (names redacted from the documents).

Neuralink eventually grew frustrated with UC Davis over what it saw as slow progress with animal testing and stopped working with the university in 2020. Reuters reports.

Neuralink did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The edge. UC Davis declined to provide specific comments except to say in an email that the university follows laboratory safety and biological risk regulations.

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