WASHINGTON – The inspector general at the Department of Veterans Affairs has launched an investigation of fatal research experiments on dogs at the agency as lawmakers renew a push to stop the tests.
VA Inspector General Michael Missal told lawmakers in a letter obtained by USA TODAY that he is reviewing whether VA officials continued the experiments in violation of a law passed last year placing restrictions on the testing.
Missal’s investigation follows a USA TODAY watchdog report in November that revealed the VA was pushing forward with the controversial research despite the law and opposition from veterans and lawmakers. Following the report, five members of Congress asked Missal to look into the experiments.
And on Monday, nearly a dozen lawmakers fired off a letter VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking him to suspend the experiments until a study by the National Academy of Sciences on the need for dogs as research subjects is finished. More than 50 House lawmakers from both parties also have signed on to legislation being introduced Wednesday that would stop the invasive and fatal experiments altogether.
Studies currently being conducted by VA researchers in Richmond, Virginia, and Cleveland, Ohio, involve surgeries on dogs’ hearts and spines that the VA says could produce discoveries to help veterans suffering from cardiac, spinal cord or breathing problems.
But the lawmakers contend the experiments haven’t produced breakthroughs for years, and options such as computer models could be used instead.
“Technology evolves faster than government processes, and the result at the VA has been that we have neglected technologies that would give us testing information so that we can continue painful animal testing, and that’s silly,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
“I understand both sides of the issue very well,” said Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., a veteran who lost both his legs in Afghanistan. “As somebody that’s needed different medical technology, I understand what’s trying to be replicated here, but for me, I think that that should be considered a bridge too far for our VA.”
Their efforts have drawn support from Lara Trump, wife of Eric Trump and a senior adviser to her father-in-law’s re-election campaign, who called the experiments “cruel and ineffective.”
“I’m encouraged by the advocacy of lawmakers like Congressmen Brian Mast and Matt Gaetz for leading on this issue and in particular introducing the … legislation to end this program,” she said in comments provided exclusively to USA TODAY.
She praised the president for signing the law restricting the testing last year, and said there is now “great opportunity afoot to protect veterans’ health, all while encouraging the VA to allocate funds and resources towards important programs that will truly benefit our veterans.”
VA touts medical advances
VA officials said in a statement that the experiments comply with animal-welfare regulations, and have contributed to significant medical breakthroughs, including the implantable cardiac pacemaker and successful liver transplants. More recently, they said VA dog research contributed to human clinical trials using electrodes to restore cough function in people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries.
“This important advancement would not have been possible using computer simulations, test tube techniques, ‘organ on a chip’ technology or smaller animal species,” Michael Fallon, chief veterinary officer at the VA, said in the statement. “VA has very few canine studies active at any one time, but some problems like this one can be addressed only with canine research, underscoring the importance of this kind of research in helping veterans who have been severely injured on the battlefield.”
The medical experiments have touched off heated debate among lawmakers, veterans and VA officials in recent years after news reports revealed VA researchers in Richmond had botched surgeries on the dogs.
The VA tightened oversight on the experiments following that revelation in 2017, and critics of the testing got some support last year from the former VA secretary, David Shulkin, who said he wanted to phase out the dog experiments and wouldn’t approve any new ones.
But his successor, Wilkie, said in December that the tests would continue under his watch, and he planned to approve new tests that might help veterans “until somebody tells me that research is not helping that outcome.”
The VA inspector general is investigating whether the VA experimenting between Shulkin’s departure in March and Wilkie’s approval of them in December violated the law Trump signed last year. That legislation required that the dog studies be “directly approved” by the VA secretary.
Shulkin told USA TODAY last fall he delegated that responsibility to the agency’s research specialists.
But VA officials say he signed off on the continuing experiments orally on March 28 at an afternoon meeting with four senior VA executives just hours before Trump fired him by tweet.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said VA officials “welcome oversight from the inspector general” and “hope, for (Shulkin’s) sake, that he will tell the truth.”
Experiments closed out
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who asked the inspector general to look into what happened and is a lead co-sponsor of the legislation to stop the experiments, told USA TODAY she believes VA officials tried to pull off a “fast shuffle” between Shulkin and other appointees who led the agency during the transition.
“Now we’ve got the inspector general looking into what’s going on at the VA,” she said. “They’ve had plenty of time to clean up their act; now we’re going to hold their feet to the fire.”
Titus noted that even as the agency has maintained the necessity of using dogs in the invasive experiments, the VA itself has closed some of them down.
VA documents show that five studies are currently being performed at two facilities – down from 13 at six facilities a few years ago. The VA shut down two dog experiments in Los Angeles, one after researchers determined mice could be used instead of dogs. They found one in Milwaukee could use pigs, and others there stopped when the lead researcher retired. Those experiments included removing sections of dogs’ brains to test neurons that control breathing before the animals were killed by lethal injection.
In Cleveland, the remaining experiment involves using electrodes on dogs’ spinal cords to measure cough reflexes before and after severing the cords. The current studies in Richmond, Virginia, include implanting pacemakers in dogs, then inducing abnormal heart rhythms and running the animals on treadmills to test cardiac function before euthanizing them by injection or draining their blood.
The VA said the work in Cleveland contributed to the recent breakthrough on cough restoration, while experiments in Richmond have helped researchers understand links between heart rate irregularity and heart disease.
Opponents of the experiments at White Coat Waste Project, a group that has been pushing to end the testing for years, asserted those studies are outdated. Justin Goodman, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the organization, said he finds it “perplexing” that the VA, is “continuing to double down on a wildly opposed practice that it’s actually winding down.”
“The VA is really its own worst enemy at this point,” Goodman said.
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