The Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI) is a strange and secretive institution whose large, roughly triangular facility sits at a major intersection on San Antonio’s I-410 highway loop. The folks buttering their cornbread and sipping sweet tea across the road at Cracker Barrel probably have little idea what happens there, and that’s a good thing for appetites.
The fences that ring TBRI are unlike those at San Antonio’s many military installations. Rather than keeping intruders out, the ring around TBRI is primarily to keep the inhabitants in. Specifically, about 2500 primates, including more than 50 chimpanzees and the world’s largest colony of captive baboons, who are probably pretty pissed off about what is done to them in TBRI’s labs, which include one of the nation’s maximium containment biosafety level four (BSL-4) facilities.
Ostensibly, TBRI is a charity medical research center, a Strangelovian Jerry’s Kids, with Ebola. It was founded by oil heir Tom Slick and has roots in the pseudoscience of cryptozoology, aka Bigfoot Studies. Slick spent a chunk of his time and fortune seeking out imaginary monsters, most famously in Nepal, where he searched for the Abominable Snowman, stole from Buddhist monks and, according to some, did Tibet-related favors for the Central Intelligence Agency.
If Slick were around today, he’d probably be in South Texas on the trail of the chupacabra, collecting tufts of hair snagged in the mesquite scrub, and texting ICE the coordinates of migrants he encountered. While Slick never found the Yeti, Bigfoot, or even the less ambitious Trinity Alps Giant Salamander, his research institute amassed a huge collection of the imaginary great apes’ smaller cousins.
Operating high containment labs and keeping up 2500 primates is an expensive business. So is paying the $773,000 salary of TBRI’s director, and the $317,000 made by the head of its BSL-4 lab. Many other employees earn well into six figures. TBRI has some of its own money, which came from Slick and the San Antonio plutocrats on its board, but the truth is that in its present supersized form TBRI is dependent on the US government. That is, your money.
TBRI maintains the pretense of soliciting mass public support for its activities, but let’s face it, unless you are wealthy, at least a tad paranoid, and interested in building creepy institutions in Bexar County, Texas – or badly wanting to join a snotty social club – TBRI is unlikely to be your cause. “Honey, I’m tired of giving to Greenpeace. They’re so shrill. Let’s write a check to the monkey pokers this year!” Not likely in your house? Mine neither.
Verily, if the spigot of tax dollars flowing into TBRI were to suddenly dry up, it would be lights out for the primate center. The inhabitants might get loose and turn the PetSmart beside Cracker Barrel into an amusement park. But let’s hope the baboon insurgency doesn’t find the guns and ammo at the Academy sporting goods store opposite TBRI, or things might start to resemble Planet of the Apes.
I suspect that heavier weaponry is stashed in the emergency lockers at the NSA Cryptology Center right behind Academy, where Edward Snowden’s former friends are reading your e-mail and Angela Merkel’s test results. God forbid if it fell to marauding monkeys already running the BSL-4 less than a mile away. The Homo sapiens would have to surrender. There’s a B movie in this somewhere.
But I digress…
TBRI receives federal recombinant DNA research funding and must make its Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) records available to the public upon request, but if you make such a request, don’t hold your breath. In fact, it’s not clear that TBRI substantively follows National Institutes of Health (NIH) rules because what little it has ever produced in response to requests does not reflect a functioning committee, particularly with respect to oversight of research at its BSL-4 laboratory, which by definition is built to house experiments with communicable and untreatable disease.
The first time I asked TBRI for its IBC meeting minutes, back in 2004, it bizarrely replied that I needed to present such requests by using registered mail. Registered mail is the preferred way of sending classified documents by US Mail, as items are carefully sealed and kept under lock and key. Then it said it didn’t have any records. Then, after a scrap lasting a few months, it produced a list of 12 rDNA projects it was working on, but no details about them.
Of course the NIH Office of Science Policy did not care. Because it does not enforce its own rules. Unlike the federal government that sends millions every year to TBRI, I did care about research rules, so I gave TBRI, then still SFBR, an “award” in the “hall of shame” that accompanied publication of the report of my first national survey of IBCs.
You can see from the award what I think goes on at
SFBR, I mean, TBRI.
Fast forward to a decade later, and I again knocked on TBRI’s door looking for IBC minutes. This time it did produce some records, but these records were woefully inadequate and did not remotely reflect the business of a committee overseeing BSL-4 research.
In the years between 2013 and 2015, TBRI’s BSL-4 lab director Jean Patterson issued several publications describing experiments with Ebola and closely related viruses, including serial passaging and vaccine tests. Yet according to its minutes, in 2014 the TBRI institutional biosafety committee claims that it was primarily discussing (in multiple meetings) a project on glow in the dark baboon sperm.
The fact that green baboon stuff is the only thing that TBRI depicts its IBC really discussing in 2014 is either an outright lie or an admission that the committee doesn’t do its job overseeing work in TBRI’s high containment facilities. Both possibilities are disturbing.
Since 2014, things have gotten worse. On August 24th of this year, I again asked TBRI for its IBC minutes. I made the request to Beata Clapp, the Chair of the IBC and Andrew Hayhurst, the Biological Safety Officer. Not that you would find this information on the TBRI website. I had to go to NIH to get it.
A month later, this is the reply that I received:
Where to begin with this? Ms. Cruz obviously doesn’t have the foggiest notion of what the NIH Guidelines are nor TBRI’s obligations under them. But she’s in a cubicle at the communications department, so we’ll forgive her. It’s her job to deflect and deny, and the taxpayers fund her to do it.
But we won’t forgive the BSO and IBC Chair, who obviously know better. I immediately replied to Ms. Cruz, copying Clapp and Hayhurst. And I filed a complaint with NIH regarding TBRI’s obvious noncompliance with the Guidelines, again copying Clapp and Hayhurst.
What’s happened since? Stone cold silence. Everybody knows that TBRI is obligated by federal rules to produce the minutes, but they haven’t. And there’s no indication that NIH OSP has even lifted a finger to do anything about it.