About 1,000 albino laboratory mice discovered earlier this year in a clandestine lab in Reedley were being kept in such “terrible” and “inhumane” conditions that they were apparently fighting and cannibalizing one another, possibly for weeks or months.
Dr. Nina Hahn, a veterinarian specializing in the care of laboratory research animals who consulted with Reedley code enforcement officials, told The Fresno Bee this week that on her first visit to the large warehouse in mid-March, “my assessment was that the mice needed to be euthanized because they were suffering.”
Hahn said there was no evidence of any active experiments at the warehouse on I Street in downtown Reedley.
That’s contrary to a frequent assertion on social media platforms – and repeated as recently as this week by politicians – that the lab’s operators Universal Meditech Inc. and Prestige Biotech Inc. “were experimenting with mice to catch and carry COVID-19” or “engaged in dangerous experiments with biological and infectious agents.”
Hahn is a California-licensed veterinarian with specialty-board certification from the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine and is an independent veterinary consultant providing clinical care and regulatory oversight to private and government funded research facilities.
“There is zero evidence that any experimentation was being performed on or had been performed on these mice,” Hahn said. “There was no lab equipment to be used on animals. There were no syringes, there were no gloves. There was no signage on the cages that they’d been injected with anything.” Hahn added that there was also a lack of space in which to handle the mice.
The rumors about experimentation on the mice are rooted in a passage in court documents in which Xiuquin Yao, reportedly the president of Prestige Biotech, told city inspectors in March that the mice were “genetically modified to catch and carry the COVID-19 virus.”
“It’s absolutely my assessment that this was ‘colony maintenance’ only; they were just warehousing these mice, keeping them alive for some purpose,” Hahn said. “There was no evidence that there was any active experimentation going on either with these mice or, actually, in the whole warehouse. I would swear that it was all things that were being stored, warehoused.”
Far more troubling, Hahn said, were the conditions in which the mice were found, housed in more than 50 overcrowded, unsanitary cages stacked on shelves within a room cordoned off by plywood from the rest of the warehouse.
‘It was awful, just awful’
On her first visit to the warehouse with Reedley Code Enforcement Officer Jesalyn Harper on March 16 under a court order to inspect the lab, “when we first saw them, some of the mice didn’t have any food, some of them didn’t have any water,” Hahn said. “The bedding in the cages hadn’t been changed in a very long time, so there was evidence of accumulated urine and feces. And there were carcasses of dead mice in some of the cages.”
Bright lights in the room were also left on around the clock, another stress factor for mice that are naturally nocturnal – and additionally harsh for albino mice whose eyes are more sensitive to light, Hahn said.
While male and female mice were being caged together, there were no newborn mice found in the cages, “and mice that are under stressful conditions will cannibalize newborn babies,” the veterinarian added. Another indicator of stress were signs of “barbering,” when mice fight each other and chew the hair and whiskers of other mice in the cage.
Other mice had large tumors on their bodies, a sign that Hahn said reflected a lack of proper veterinary care.
“I have never in my long career (of 30 years) seen animals housed in such terrible conditions. … It was awful, just awful,” Hahn added. “These mice were being housed under what I consider inhumane conditions that wold not have been allowed in any appropriately regulated research facility.”
Research laboratories that receive federal funding, such as through the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, are governed by federal laws that include very specific conditions for caring for mice and rats. said Hahn, said. But for privately funded labs, “there are zero regulations concerning the care of mice.”
She added, however, that “many privately funded research facilities, including most biotech and pharma (companies) utilizing mice do follow guidelines” of the federal Health Research Extension Act and the National Institutes of Health Guide for Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Hahn said that from her experience at university laboratories and research hospitals, “if mice got anywhere near these kind of conditions, the researcher would have had their funding taken away from them.”
How are mice used in research?
Hahn told The Bee that genetically modified, or “transgenic,” mice “are used very, very extensively in private, academic, public and government research facilities to study disease mechanisms and treatments.”
“There are some transgenic strains that are used for COVID research, but they are generally used to look into treatments,” she said. “There are no ‘normal’ mice that can be given COVID.”
In a simplified explanation, Hahn said “transgenic” means manipulating a mouse’s DNA through a variety of techniques with a bit of human DNA. That then allows the mouse to get whatever disease researchers are studying.
That mouse can then be bred to build a research population of mice that carry the same susceptibility to the studied disease, “and then you can use those mouse models to study different treatments,” Hahn said. “This is what mouse models for COVID were developed to do, to study both treatments and vaccinations.”
But, she added, aside from the references attributed to Prestige Biotech’s president in court documents, there’s no direct evidence that the mice found in the Reedley lab were genetically modified or transgenic.
In a March 27 email to Harper included in court documents, Yao described the mice as “very precious” to Prestige Biotech’s work.
“They are a special purebred population that took six years to build up,” Yao wrote. “It is of special significance in the study of immunology and oncology. The value of its biological assets is likely to be hundreds of thousands or even one million (dollars).”
Hahn said that because of the assertions from Yao about the value of the mice, she provided information about potentially storing the genetic line of the mice with the UC Davis Mouse Biology Program. “They could have taken some of those mice, take some of the DNA, put it into cryopreservation, and then if they ever needed the stock of mice again, they could pull them out of frozen storage,” she said. “It’s basically a way to archive the DNA, the genetic material, so they wouldn’t lose those mice if they were that valuable.”
However, Hahn added, “they did not choose to do that.”
Ten of the mice specimens were collected after they were euthanized and put into storage in the Reedley Police Department’s evidence freezer, but Harper, the cty’s code enforcement officer, said the company has not come forward to claim the mice.
What became of these mice?
Between the first visit by Hahn to the lab with Harper in mid-March and a return visit on April 12, Harper took it upon herself to provide food and water to the mice, since the lab was ordered closed to outsiders.
By that time, “there were a large number of dead mice in the cages, and many injuries and deformities to the mice were observed,” according to court documents. “Due to the observed suffering of the animals and lack of the ability to provide adequate housing and care for the mice, it was Dr. Hahn’s recommendation that they be euthanized.”
Prior to the building’s closure in March, court documents indicate that Harper had given Prestige Biotech an opportunity to make arrangements to care for and relocate the mice, but the company did not do so.
“Since the animals were suffering … the best thing to do for the interests of the mice, just like if you had a sick old pet, was to euthanize them,” Hahn told The Bee. “We did it extremely humanely according to the guidelines in the American Veterinary Medical Association Euthanasia Guide.”
Of more than 950 mice in the cages, 178 were already dead, court documents stated.
The surviving mice – 773 of them – were taken in their cages on carts to outside the building for better ventilation; each cage was then put inside a sealed plastic trash bag along with cotton balls soaked in an inhaled anesthetic called isoflurane to render the mice unconscious – effectively an overdose of the chemical.
Only after the mice were unconscious, Harper wrote, “Dr. Hahn removed them from the cage and, to confirm death, performed a cervical dislocation.” Cervical dislocation is the manual breaking of the neck at the base of the skull, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, and has been used for many years as a means of euthanasia by skilled personnel on mice, small birds, immature rats and rabbits that have already been anesthetized.
Because “there was no evidence on site that the mice were being injected or tested, …” Harper stated in court documents, “it was determined it would be safe to discard the mice through the City of Reedley Animal Shelter contractors” to be incinerated.
“Once the mice were documented and discarded, it was determined that the cages would be discarded as well because of the severity of filth and the lack of water on site to be able to clean and disinfect the cages,” Harper added. “The discarded cages and materials utilized for the euthanasia procedure were disposed of through (the city’s) Public Works trash services.”