Elon Musk’s New Monkey Death Claims Spur Fresh Demands for an SEC Investigation

For the third time this year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission is being urged to investigate allegations of whether Elon Musk made misleading claims to investors about the deaths of primates used for research by Neuralink, his brain-chip startup.

The latest claims center around his recent statements at the New York Times DealBook Summit that primates who died after implant surgeries were selected for experimentation because they were already close to death. In a letter sent to federal regulators today, an animal rights advocacy and research group claims that Musk’s statements are inaccurate and amount to “possible securities fraud.”

This marks the third letter to the SEC since late September requesting an investigation into Musk’s comments about Neuralink’s test subjects. Records related to Neuralink’s research reviewed by WIRED paint a complicated picture of the health of the monkeys used to develop the company’s brain-chip implants, which will soon be used in human trials.

The most recent letter, written by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, centers on an interview between Musk and Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin on November 29. Asked to respond to reports of the gruesome deaths that occurred during early Neuralink experiments at UC Davis, Musk told the audience that the monkeys who endured experimental surgeries were already terminal. “It’s the kind of thing which we could only put in a monkey that’s about to die,” he said, referring to his experimental chip, adding, “It didn’t die because of the Neuralink, it died because it had a terminal case of cancer or something like that.”

The Physicians Committee’s letter alleges that there is no proof that primates had fatal conditions before receiving implants. Citing veterinary records the organization obtained last year, the letter claims that Neuralink scientists performed experimental surgeries on previously healthy primates, some of which went on to suffer complications ranging from serious fungal infections to loosely implanted chips to bleeding or swelling in their brain.

On October 19, 2018, for instance, veterinarians at UC Davis performed a pre-project examination of a female macaque called “Animal 11.” At the time, Davis’ staff examined her spleen, liver, lymph nodes, eyes, and ears. A cardiologist also performed an echocardiogram to make sure there was no evidence of underlying heart conditions common in macaques. After her examinations, staff only noted one abnormality: She was missing digits on both hands and her right foot.

In December that year, Neuralink employees drilled into her skull and implanted electrodes in her brain in an experimental surgery. She was euthanized a few months later after the implants had become infected.

According to a doctor who spent years working as a clinical veterinarian at a primate breeding and research facility, if Animal 11 had any kind of terminal health condition as Musk claims, they “absolutely” should have shown up in the physical examinations that Davis staff performed. However, the doctor, who requested anonymity citing “industry-wide retaliation,” speculated that while they did not see any evidence of a terminal health condition prior to an experimental surgery, it’s possible that the primate could have had behavioral or mental health issues causing the animal to be considered “terminal.”

“If we can’t control an animal’s stress through environment and medication, then that’s a reason for humane euthanasia,” the doctor says, indicating that Animal’s 11 missing fingers and toes could be a sign of this. To help cope with the stress of life in a lab, researchers try to pair primates with a companion. “In some cases,” the doctor adds, “one monkey sticks its finger through the grate, and their neighbor bites it off.”

Other pre-project veterinary records WIRED reviewed with the doctor reveal that Neuralink’s test primates suffered from stress, physical altercations, and other unspecified trauma before their terminal surgeries or euthanasia. For instance, the doctor observed that at least one primate was being treated with fluoxetine—generic Prozac—for depression. “But there’s nowhere in the documents that explicitly states the animals would qualify for humane euthanasia due to stress,” they say.

At last month’s Dealbook Summit, Musk likened Neuralink facilities to a “monkey paradise.” A WIRED investigation published in October found that Neuralink primates survived for weeks after enduring experiments with names like “cranial heat dissipation study” or “electrode insertion survivability study.” The primates used in Neuralink experiments at UC Davis can live up to 40 years in captivity, yet most of the animals that Neuralink euthanized in its experiments had not yet reached adulthood.

In October 2018, a UC Davis veterinarian approved Animal 13 for use in a Neuralink experiment. She was six years old when she received her Neuralink implants. According to her pre-project physical exam and echocardiogram, Davis staff did not observe any medical abnormalities prior to her surgery, only noting that she had superficial scratches on her lips and minor lip trauma as part of a “suspect pair fight.”

Beginning in November 2018, Animal 13 was regularly sedated with ketamine and hooked up to scientific instruments for “neuro recordings.” After one of these sessions the following month, Davis staff observed that the skin near the implants felt warm to the touch, the records show.

Over the next three months, her implants became infected. She was euthanized in March 2019. Her autopsy notes “numerous bacterial cultures” and evidence of brain swelling.

A doctoral candidate who conducted research at Davis’ California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) told WIRED in September that, in their view, “there’s no real indication that these animals were terminal, and in fact, their age suggests that they weren’t.” The doctoral candidate added that, without more information, there was “there’s no real way” they could be certain.

A “scope of work and budget” document between Neuralink and UC Davis reviewed by WIRED lends some legitimacy to Musk’s claims that certain animals may have been terminal prior to their surgeries. The document details the amounts that Neuralink was to pay for UC Davis labor, equipment, and primates at each phase of its experimentation at the university. “The first stage of this work will be to test and refine our implantable devices,” the document reads, describing these tests to be performed “ideally with culled animals.”

While the document goes on to describe the six adult rhesus macaques who were to undergo these “terminal procedures” during this phase as being “in robust health,” the doctor WIRED spoke to points out that the budget indicates that this group of monkeys was discounted “because they are animals that are considered terminal,” they say.

However, the doctor explains that because animals 11 and 13 were meant to survive their initial implantation surgery, they were likely not part of this phase of Neuralink’s experimentation.

Neuralink did not respond to a request for comment for this article or any of our previous coverage of the experiments at Davis.

This week’s letter from the Physicians Committee marks the second time the organization has written to federal regulators asking for a securities fraud investigation into Musk’s comments about Neuralink’s monkeys. After Musk made similar statements about the Neuralink experiments in a post on his social networking app X (formerly Twitter), the organization wrote to the SEC alleging that the Neuralink CEO was deliberately misleading investors. Four members of the US House of Representatives have also asked the SEC to look into these claims of whether Musk committed securities fraud.

“When dealing with alleged animal welfare violations as egregious as those leveled against Musk, there needs to be greater urgency to hold him accountable,” US representative Earl Blumenauer told WIRED in a statement last month.

Last week, the SEC told Blumenauer that it could not confirm or deny whether it is investigating Musk’s comments.

“Musk has continued to make misleading and false claims about experiments conducted on monkeys by Neuralink,” the Physicians Committee letter alleges. “We urge the SEC to investigate this matter and penalize Neuralink and Musk appropriately.”

Source : Wired