The Eye Research Centre near Occold in Suffolk is HLS's smallest laboratory. The site spans 28 acres and has been a blot on the local landscape for a number of years.
In October 2000 drug-taking, animal abuse, infighting and low morale were exposed at HLS when SHAC received a number of documents, photographs and video tapes relating to the day to day operations of the laboratory.
These documents reveal employees' cavalier attitude towards their work and their total lack of respect for the animals they are responsible for - one employee laughs as she recalls a baboon escaping from HLS and documents reveal that in a separate incident a primate had her leg broken due to rough handling.
Yet again client confidentiality has been compromised and yet again HLS have been exposed for the sham of a company they are.
The most shocking revelation was video footage of an animal technician, Sarah, laughing as she recounted how a baboon escaped from Huntingdon Life Sciences’s site at Huntingdon and ran across the A1 dual carriageway.
The following is a transcript from the video that was secretly shot inside Huntingdon's Occold lab:
Person 1: "You can imagine going through a docket hole in the ceiling and a fucking big baboon …"
Sarah: "That happened up at Huntingdon."
Person 1: "You’re joking."
Sarah: "No, legged it across the A1."
Person 1: [Inaudible]
Sarah: "I think so. It ended up in the plant room. The engineers went up there and left the door open and it fucked off across the A1."
Person 1: "Did they catch it?"
Sarah: "Eventually. It wouldn’t have survived anyway."
Person 1: "Is that why it’s so hot in here?"
Person 2: "How much did it weigh?"
Sarah: "Up to 15 kilos."
This shows HLS employees’ cavalier attitude to a very serious incident. How many other animals have escaped? What diseases was this baboon carrying? Was this incident reported to the Home Office, Police and Study Sponsor?
One of the documents received was a Formal Written Warning given to Selina Williams, an animal technician working in Dog and Primate Toxicology. When asked why she had not arrived at work or notified the company, she replied:
"On my way to work I was stopped by the police, and subsequently charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. I was given a fine and received points on my licence."
It is almost unbelievable that this worker was disciplined for not attending work, yet the fact that she was on her way to work drunk is not considered worthy of disciplinary action.
Included in notes about another technician, James Berry, is the following: "I am aware that James has received counselling for alcohol-related problems whilst employed by HLS."
Do HLS consider that a worker with alcohol problems is fit to work with animals and carry out experimental procedures such as dosing accurately?
On the video footage we received, animal technician Sarah laughs as she recounts how two workers were in trouble for staying in the pub for two hours over lunchtime.
This is a serious concern. How can someone who has been drinking to this extent possibly be in a fit state to carry out experimental procedures or ensure that animals are properly looked after?
Huntingdon Life Sciences’s own Staff Handbook states that certain offences are sufficiently serious to warrant instant dismissal without prior warning. One of these offences is: "Being under the influence of intoxicating liquor on Company premises."
Why were the above workers not sacked immediately?
Of particular concern is the following taken from notes regarding animal technician James Berry: "Team Leader informed me that James had offered Speed to Selina Williams and Jess Ashwell having already taken some himself. Both have agreed to supply written statements regarding this.
"In the Staff Handbook it states that "possession, consumption or being under the influence of drugs on company premises" warrants instant dismissal. Why was this worker not dismissed immediately? Why didn’t HLS inform the police of the criminal activity taking place on their premises?
We received copies of many records of disciplinary action and other documents regarding staff from the Dog and Primate Toxicology Units not turning up for work, and also not notifying the company they were not coming in.
One letter to a Mrs V. Rush from John Holmes states: "Your current level of sickness is unacceptable. This level of absenteeism does not assist your working colleagues to achieve their work loads or (sic) does it assist us to ensure adequate staffing levels are maintained."
It is evident from several different documents that staff morale at Occold is very low.
One technician when interviewed about why he walked out of work in the middle of the day without informing anyone, stated that he "had reached the end of his tether." He said that other members of staff felt the same, and that he "was merely the first to crack."
A letter from Pete Denholm, Chief Animal Technician, to a Mr S Frost informing him of a salary rise and promotion to the position of Team Leader has a hand-written note on it saying: "Welcome to the stress club."
Another indication of staff problems at Occold is a letter from Jamie Kilpatrick in the Dog Toxicology Unit to John Holmes, Principal Team Leader and Animal Facility Manager, stating: "This building can’t afford to have such negativity and bad reports otherwise some questions will be asked further up the line (surely)?"
Another note signed by Pete Denholm, Chief Animal Technician, concerns two female technicians and how they leave work early in the evening and stay on lunch longer than they should. He mentions their "blatant abuse of our trust."
In a confidential Record of Disciplinary Action dated 7th January 2000, a Mrs Vicky Rush, now in Marmoset Breeding, was given a formal verbal warning when "… one male marmoset suffered an irreversible fracture to the left Femur while being restrained within the gangcage. The animal was euthanased on humane grounds."
A formal verbal warning, according to HLS’s own handbook, is given for a minor offence, whilst immediate dismissal is meant to happen when "any action which deliberately or by negligence results in injury to an animal."
Why was Vicky Rush not sacked immediately?
Another Formal Written Warning was issued to Sarah Kirkup in Dog and Primate Toxicology when she gave a monkey in a British Biotech experiment the vehicle substance instead of the test substance, threw away the dose the animal should have been given and did not inform any of her team. She admits "I know I have made a serious mistake."
Chief Technician Pete Denholm’s handwritten note states that "the chain of events commencing in the pharmacy department and then subsequently in the animals must have a serious impact on our client confidence as numerous checks put in place were blatantly not followed."
How can HLS’s clients have any confidence that experiments are being properly carried out?
INFORMATION ON CUSTOMERS
We received a considerable amount of confidential information regarding customers and the primate toxicology experiments they have paid Huntingdon Life Sciences to carry out on their behalf in 1999-2000.
As you can see from one of the tables from Toxicology Planning at HLS dated 14th March 2000 the information is comprehensive, listing the study number, enquiry number, company, substance to be tested, quote number, order month, quote value, price, species, study type and duration, route of administration, department, start month, site and HLS contact for each experiment.
Some tables list how many monkeys have been assigned to each experiment, with the company name listed beside the number of animals, and other tables list the duration of each experiment.
We also have various e-mails, such as an enquiry from David J. Beard at Glaxo, and also internal HLS e-mails regarding various customers and experiments, as well as several speculative protocols for toxicity studies for various companies such as Diamyd and ARPIDA.
SAFETY PRECAUTIONS IGNORED
A hand-written note from Pete Denholm to Carley Smith regards safety precautions being ignored resulting in a germ off accident, the third one in one month.
He states that all the accidents have resulted in staff taking time off work. He says "you were not wearing eye protection in the first 3 gang cages" and that staff "have been reminded on several occasions to wear safety equipment."
This sort of behaviour shows the ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude of HLS staff. This incident is particularly worrying given that a laboratory worker died in America from Herpes B after a monkey threw its faeces in her eye.
BREACHES OF GOOD LABORATORY PRACTICE
It was of great interest to read HLS's overview of the findings of the 1999 inspection of Occold by the Good Laboratory Practice Monitoring Authority. There were 41 deficiencies listed following the inspection.
One major deficiency listed was that HLS produced multiple versions of reports for one study, even though only one report per study is allowed, and also changed details within the report - according to the GLPMA "the outcome was misleading information."
There were also major deficiencies with multi-site studies with regard to reporting separate phases and management control, and major deficiencies regarding Quality Assurance.
Other discrepancies were listed in various areas, including SOPs, Training issues, Records, Archiving, Quality Assurance, Equipment, Labelling and Facilities.
One discrepancy of particular concern is "estimating dose volumes in syringe." HLS's own internal comment is "Yet again! Estimating between the graduation lines or pulling the plunger past the last graduation lines is not acceptable." How can HLS possibly assure customers of the integrity of studies carried out on their behalf when the dosages are inaccurate?
Other discrepancies include absence of measurement units on forms, trainee supervision not documented, no indication of competence in senior staff, late submission of studies, behind schedule with external and facility inspections, backlog of report audits, inadequate building maintenance, inadequate clean and dirty separation, inadequate freezer space for samples and insufficient laboratory space.
The list of discrepancies goes on - suffice to say that yet again there is evidence of HLS running their business in a sloppy, disorganised manner. What is of particular concern is that there are discrepancies covering many different areas of the site, which shows that there are widespread problems at Occold.
'YOUR SECRETS ARE OUR SECRETS'?
It is apparent from the video footage that we received that the person filming it was able to wander up and down corridors and in and out of various labs and animal rooms without being challenged by any staff. This is also apparent from the photographs taken all round the site.
Yet again it has been proved that HLS management's claim ‘Your secrets are our secrets' is a complete and utter joke.
They cannot possibly assure any clients of customer confidentiality. With two undercover investigations and two exposés covering all three of their sites in the UK and the USA in the last three years, who knows what company's links with HLS will be uncovered next?