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The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has had to reject a conspiracy theory that the Chief Medical Adviser to the President, Dr Anthony Fauci, conducted research aimed at scaring monkeys.
The National Institute of Mental Health told Reuters they were behind the study and that the agency headed by Dr Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was not involved.
NBC News reported in March 2020 that the federal government has spent almost $100m on studies of monkeys’ brains since 2007 – $16m of which on a study that included attempts to scare monkeys with rubber snakes and fake spiders.
Conservative activist Candace Owens tweeted on 24 October: “Reading through Fauci’s experiments and the one I find most alarming is the use of an acid to destroy a region of monkeys’ brains to magnify terror. They then simulated images of spiders and tormented them with fear. Human DNA is 97% identical to apes. Why fund that research?”
A Facebook user reacted to the post, writing: “Wait...WHAT??? And this monster is trying to tell us what to do??????”
One Twitter user added: “Why did Fauci use acid on monkeys to destroy parts of their brains – intensifying a terror response – then torture them with imagery of spiders and snakes?”
A spokesperson for the agency that conducted the experiments, NIMH, told Reuters that Dr Fauci “is not involved and has never been involved in this study”.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an agency under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services. The National Institute of Mental Health is one of 27 institutes and centres under the leadership of the NIH. Dr Fauci leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a separate centre within the NIH.
A spokesperson told Reuters that the study “was not funded by NIAID”, which Dr Fauci has headed since 1984.
“Animal studies play an important role in advancing our understanding of the brain in health and disease, and NIMH supports such research conducted in accordance with the highest scientific and ethical principles,” the spokesperson added. “All animals used in NIH-funded research are protected by laws, regulations, and policies that ensure researchers maintain the greatest commitment to animal welfare.”
Last year, NBC News obtained video of the experiments at NIMH, which were partly conducted on monkeys with brains that had been purposefully damaged before the experiments were conducted. The White Coat Waste Project shared the video with NBC after getting ahold of it through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in a DC federal court.
“We have serious concerns about whether this questionable research deserves continued support from Congress and taxpayers,” a group of lawmakers with members of both parties said in a 2020 letter to the National Institutes of Health. “New reports about disturbing taxpayer-funded experiments on monkeys at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, demonstrate why more Congressional oversight of NIH primate research is urgently needed,” the lawmakers added at the time.
The agency defended the monkey experiments, telling NBC News that it helps scientists understand how the brain handles post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other similar conditions.
“Monkeys are used in research because of their marked similarities to humans with respect to anatomy, physiology, and behaviour,” the agency told NBC News in 2020. “Testing procedures produce a range of animal responses, mirroring human traits and attributes, ranging from no response to momentary and transient anxiety. Each animal’s well-being was closely monitored during and after testing by experienced and trained animal care staff and veterinarians. The procedures under question resulted in no harm to any of the animals tested.”