I-TEAM: New evidence in Augusta University’s animal research case
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - New evidence in a case involving animal research at Augusta University could prove AU lied to the federal government, risking millions of research dollars.
Our I-Team first uncovered allegations of fraud, forgery, and a cover-up at Augusta University after a research monkey died nine years ago. You could call it a smoking gun, and for years, Augusta University used the big guns to try to keep it under wraps.
“I didn’t want to go to jail, so I made the mistake of blowing the whistle Look where it got me,” said Dr. Jay Hedge during a grievance hearing at Augusta University.
Dr. Hedge requested that hearing after the death of his monkey, Ovetchkin. AU told the federal government the research Ovetchkin died of “cardiopulmonary arrest,” his heart stopping due to “repeated sedation” because of “a delay in the procedure.”
Dr. Hedge alleges Ovetchkin died when a vet gave him “an apparent overdose of painkillers.” He says that same vet who accidentally killed his monkey was the same one who did the necropsy, or animal autopsy. Dr. Hedge told faculty members that should raise some questions because he said the university had an important reason to cover things up.
“If the animals died of a drug overdose, it becomes a reportable incident and would have to be reported to the federal regulators, and the federal regulators, by rule, would have to post it on a public website. The animal rights activists would find out about it and make a big fuss about it.”
As the I-Team reported, animal researchers likely would have protested, considering they had just been to AU’s campus the month before and the month before that.
Now, a letter obtained by the I-Team through the Freedom of Information Act request is taking center stage.
AU sent it to the government claiming to have sent tissue samples of AC-70, or Ovetchkin’s brain, to a private lab. But it wasn’t sent right away. The letter we obtained says it was sent a full year after Ovetchkin died.
Dr. Hedge told the feds under oath, “I saw no one save any samples of any kind.” And the slides “could not possibly have come from an animal of the same species.”
Dr. Hedge alleges this was no mistake; he calls it “physical evidence of one or more crimes.”
During the grievance hearing, Dr. Hedge was asked, “Would it be possible, in our estimation, that this was just complete incompetence. Like their writing of the report was just complete incompetence, pursuing the proper?”
Dr. Hedge responded saying, “Oh no. How do you – this is like saying somebody forged a check out of incompetence.”
In 2019, Dr. Hedge’s lawyer, Tanya Jeffords asked the court to order forensic testing of that brain tissue. First, AU’s lawyers said the tissue did not exist.
Then, they admitted they made a mistake, and the tissue did exist, but they didn’t want to allow anyone to test it. They are lawyers from the State Attorney General’s Office defending Augusta University in this case, even though, technically, they could’ve been on the other side of this investigating potential fraud.
However, in this case, the state’s top lawyers have been fighting to protect AU and stop any tissue testing. That is – until the I-Team broke some big news last August: the judge in this case was allowing Dr. Hedge to test the brain tissue.
Now, those results are back, and according to a new court document, those tissue samples do not belong to Ovetchkin.
Specifically, “samples are not from macaque” or not “any of various monkeys mostly from Asia that includes some with either short or no tails.”
These are findings that support what Dr. Hedge has said all along.
The I-Team couldn’t find another case where it appears a university lied to the federal government about animal research, but in 2016, the USDA hit a private research company with a $3.5 million dollar fine over its treatment of goats and rabbits. Santa Cruz Biotech also had to cancel its research registration and give up its license for violating the Animal Welfare Act.
Right now, Elon Musk’s company, Neuralink is reportedly under investigation for possible violations too because of work with monkeys.
Members of Congress are putting pressure on the USDA to hold Neuralink accountable for “unnecessary animal suffering and deaths Neuralink’s work may be causing.”
Just this month, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed yet another complaint.
That’s on top of their complaint last year alleging the company violated the Animal Welfare Act when 23 monkeys died.
These documents are public record, but the group had to get their lawyers involved to get them, much like the I-Team had to do when it came to Augusta University and the grievance hearing from 2016.
As for AU, at least some public records available online show the university has 28 monkeys classified as “animals upon which experiments, teaching, research, surgery, or tests were conducted” involving “pain or distress to the animals” so things like “painkillers, anesthesia, and even tranquilizers are used.”
The latest numbers are from 2021 and the school did not file paperwork for 2020, but we tracked the numbers all the way back to 2016, when they had as many as 47 monkeys. This brings us back to Ovetchkin.
Dr. Hedge believes AU punished him for blowing the whistle. He claims AU terminated his grant with the National Science Foundation.
If you search his grant on the NSF website it was supposed to total $685,000 over four years but it suddenly stopped. NSF funded researchers are required to let the public know the results of their research. Here, Dr. Hedge posted he was “unable to complete the project.”
He goes on to describe how his monkey died of an “overdose,” and when he discovered evidence of “forgery,” he tried to blow the whistle and “GRU took a series of measures” that “led to the “premature termination” of the grant.
“I’m the one who made the mistake of saying you can’t falsify federal records, and I’m taking it on the chin,” Dr. Hedge told faculty members in that grievance hearing.
As for the new evidence, Augusta University has not responded yet. On its own website, AU touts faculty with a funding portfolio of more than $16 million, including 21 NCI funded grants that total almost $8 million.
That shows just how much research funding could be at stake here.
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