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As Elon Musk’s Neuralink is gearing up for human trials, the biotech startup is facing allegations by a medical ethics group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, concerning the death of at least 12 primates.
The group sent letters to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) asking them to investigate Musk’s claims that the deaths happened because the primates were terminally ill and not due to implants. The group obtained veterinary records, later acquired by Wired, which exposed several fallacies regarding Musk’s September 10 tweet where he acknowledged the death of primates.
“They are claiming they are going to put a safe device on the market, and that’s why you should invest,” Ryan Merkley, who leads the Physicians Committee’s research into animal-testing alternatives, told Wired. “And we see his lie as a way to whitewash what happened in these exploratory studies.”
In the tweet, Musk said that the primates were already close to death before the experiments. Neuralink began acquiring primates for research from September 2017 to 2020. The documents revealed that the primates suffered diarrhoea, partial paralysis, depression, seizures, loss of coordination and balance and cerebral oedema.
One primate, identified as Animal 20, died due to bacterial and fungal infections due to the discharge resulting from scratching the implant site. Another one, Animal 15, started to bang her head against the floor and would pull out the implant. The staff observed that during all this time, she was visibly uncomfortable and could be seen holding hands with her roommate. During the following months, her condition deteriorated due to bleeding in the brain.
Animal 22’s implants became so loose that they could be pulled out easily. The document states that this death can be considered purely mechanical and not infectious, directly contradicting Musk’s tweet.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine alleged that Musk’s statement is misleading and investors should be told accurate information about the safety of Neuralink’s products.
The SEC oversees securities issues in the United States. Neuralink has raised over $280 million from investors. Earlier, the SEC had charged Tesla, another company owned by Elon Musk, with fraud, claiming that the social media posts by Musk influenced investors’ decisions.
Neuralink has been at loggerheads with the authorities lately. In December 2022, the US Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General investigated Neuralink’s involvement in testing animals. In February this year, the US Department of Transportation investigated Neuralink’s involvement in unsafe transportation of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
Earlier, the US Food and Drug Administration rejected Musk’s application for human trials as the implants contain lithium batteries and a possibility that the wires may migrate to different brain areas. Although, in May, the FDA granted permission to Neuralink to go on with the human trials.
It remains to be seen whether the SEC will look into this matter seriously, as the SEC has yet to come out with a statement. Meanwhile, Neuralink is also silent on the issue as of now.