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Elon Musk's Neuralink probed over pathogen transport

Surely this is how at least one Michael Crichton novel starts

Neuralink, the Musk-founded brain implant company that's no stranger to controversy, is in hot water again, this time over allegations it may have illegally transported implants removed from deceased animals and infected with dangerous pathogens. 

This latest set of allegations rests on claims from the Physician's Committee of Responsible Medicine (PCRM) that come with a bundle [PDF] of email receipts, allegedly evidencing Neuralink's removal of implants from deceased monkeys that were found to contain a range of pathogens. 

The committee alleges that among the dangerous diseases found on the implants were Staphylococcus and Klebsiella bacteria, which can cause pneumonia, blood infections, surgical site infections and meningitis; Corynebacterium ulcerans, a common disease in Rhesus Macaques and an emerging human pathogen that can cause fatal diphtheria; and the Herpes B virus. 

More alarmingly, microbiology reports from the deceased animals included in the packet of evidence appear to mention some sort of unidentified "very rare extracellular coccoid bacteria forming short chains" in one of the monkeys.

According to the PCRM, emails it obtained between UC Davis staff, where the implant and removal surgeries took place, and Neuralink employees showed the university staff raised repeated concerns that Neuralink was removing contaminated implants from, and returning them to, the California National Primate Research Center in a manner that violated federal law.

Armed with those emails, the PCRM sent a letter yesterday (linked above w/ the emails) to the Department of Transportation, tipping it off to the potential violations of federal hazmat transportation laws.

"[Neuralink's] documented track record of sloppy, unsafe laboratory practices compel DOT to investigate and levy appropriate fines," the PCRM said in its letter.


"How many federal agencies need to investigate Musk and Neuralink before they clean up their act?" Ryan Merkley, director of research advocacy at the PCRM, asked, referring to multiple other investigations the US government has opened into Neuralink.

The PCRM isn't even getting into its first sparring match with Neuralink, and was behind a lawsuit launched early last year that led to the Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General looking into Neuralink's allegedly careless handling of its animal subjects, which is said to have led to the critters suffering unnecessarily and being killed in large numbers. 

Now, the DoT said it has received the PCRM's latest allegations and is investigating, as is standard practice whenever it receives word that a company might be violating hazmat transport laws. "In this instance [we] are conducting a standard investigation to ensure compliance and the public safety of workers and the public," a DoT spokesperson told The Register.

According to the PCRM's letter, the implants removed from the deceased monkeys weren't cleaned properly, were transported by Neuralink employees who hadn't been trained in hazmat transport, and were transported "in an open box with no secondary container." 

Such infected materials are required by federal law to be transported in three very specific layers of packaging, consisting of "a leakproof primary receptacle, a leakproof secondary receptacle, and rigid outer packaging," the letter added.

If a party were found to have done this, civil penalties of up to $96,624 could be imposed for each count of knowing violations of federal hazmat transport laws, the PCRM said, and training violations dictate a minimum penalty of $582 for each violation. 

Late last year, Elon Musk claimed that Neuralink was in the process of getting FDA approval, and that he hoped the first human implants could begin in the latter half of 2023. Neuralink didn't respond to our questions but we'll update if it does. ®

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