What kind of man profits from scalded monkey junk?
On the campaign trail, Trump-endorsed Ohio Senate nominee J.D. Vance leans into the hardscrabble upbringing he wrote about in Hillbilly Elegy. He rails against universities and the abuses of Big Tech. He blasts Covid mandates, encouraging distrust, without evidence, of the “long-term risks” of mRNA vaccines. A recent convert to Catholicism, Vance insists he’s “100 percent pro-life.”
But in his life away from politics, Vance is a venture capitalist. And his values as an investor are far muddier. His VC firm, Narya, is an investor in Hallow, a prayer app that’s caught flak for allegedly seeking to profit off the intimate religious data of its users. Narya is also a backer of Rumble, the far-right “free speech” video service that competes with YouTube in the same way the noxious Gab counters Twitter — platforming noxious creators who’ve been kicked out of more respectable corners of the internet.
Vance’s VC firm also backs a $200 million biotech startup called AmplifyBio. In addition to Narya’s holdings, Vance declared he personally owns as much as $100,000 in the company’s non-public stock, according to recent SEC disclosures. The drug-testing firm has been lauded in the local press as part of Ohio’s transition from rust-belt decay to high-tech rebirth. The firm touts its mission as: “Advancing Science for Humankind.”
But behind the gleaming walls of its Columbus-area campus, AmplifyBio operates a disturbing enterprise. Its core business is testing experimental drugs developed by other companies. AmplifyBio tests many of these substances on live animals, including monkeys and dogs.
Many of these animals die in the course of toxic testing exposures. Other animals are destroyed at the conclusion of testing. There are also dreadful mistakes: A lab monkey recently died after getting wedged in faulty lab equipment, and technician error left other monkeys with burns on their genitals.
The Vance campaign did not respond to detailed questions from Rolling Stone about the GOP nominee’s investment ethics and how they align with the principles he espouses on the campaign trail. (Narya also did not respond to a request to discuss its investments.)
In particular, the research conducted at AmplifyBio also calls into question if Vance’s far-right religious values end where his profit motive begins. AmplifyBio tests cell therapies and other drugs that are likely derived from stem cell lines, including those recovered from aborted fetuses or live embryos. Such stem cell research drives vital innovation in modern health care, but it is anathema to those on the religious right who contend that life begins at conception.
In a written statement, the company tells Rolling Stone that it does not directly use stem cell lines in its testing. It is quick to add, however, that “historically established stem cell lines are a common tool in the research and development of drug molecules of all types, extending well beyond cell therapy and including ‘traditional’ drugs.”
AmplifyBio does not ask whether the drugs it tests are developed with fetal or embryonic cells, nor, it insists, would it turn away such business. “We do not have any policy that would require our clients to disclose those types of development details,” it says. “To have that policy could limit the clients we work with.”
Far from the shiny face of biotech, AmplifyBio represents a little-scrutinized dark side of the industry, in which advances in human health require the deaths of primates, dogs, and other animals.
Many of AmplifyBio’s tests rely on macaques — a highly intelligent, socially sophisticated monkey. The primate’s brain structure, immune system, and metabolism make it an attractive proxy for humans in testing. And the use of macaques in lab experiments is both common and controversial. (Heeding public backlash against primate testing, in 2015 the NIH banned research on chimpanzees.)
Even under the best of circumstances, the monkeys used in AmplifyBio’s research have short, dismal lives. This is evidenced in a study published in June in the journal PLOS Pathogens, conducted at AmplifyBio on 25 macaques. The experiment required drilling holes in the monkeys’ skulls to deliver vaccine injections directly into their brains. After a month of observation, the study records, the animals were “humanely terminated,” and their brains harvested for research.
AmplifyBio is a young company. The enterprise was spun off by the nonprofit research giant Battelle in 2021 with the help of private investors like Narya. Battelle remains an investor, and AmplifyBio’s headquarters is attached to Battelle’s campus in West Jefferson, Ohio.
Top research personnel from Battelle transferred to the new company — including those with experience doing lab tests on dogs. Such research adds to a picture of a biomedical enterprise built on animal sacrifice. A study published in Nov. 2021 in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology was overseen by Battelle; the lead scientist is now Study Director at AmplifyBio.
The test involved 48 beagles and evaluated an analog of the neurotransmitter creatine. Due to toxicity of the test substance, 15 dogs had to be put down. Two more were found dead in the lab. Regimens at higher doses had to be curtailed “due to the early death of multiple animals,” the study reported.
A USDA inspection in July of this year found that there were 168 monkeys and 120 dogs at AmplifyBio. A spokesperson insists the company designs its research “with the goal of minimizing the number of animals used.”
In addition to the unpleasant business of killing animals in the name of scientific advancement, AmplifyBio has also killed and injured them in lab accidents. In July, a USDA inspector cited AmplifyBio for failing to protect a monkey from asphyxiation.
According to the federal document, a technician attempted to restrain a male macaque in a “squeeze mechanism.” (In lab settings, this typically involves a metal grate that presses the animal against the front of its enclosure.) Instead of being immobilized, however, the primate wormed its way into “a gap … at the top of the cage and got stuck,” the report records. “While attempting to free itself the animal became unconscious.” The lab team tried to revive the macaque but “ultimately the animal was determined to be deceased.”
The incident drew scorn from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which made the document public. PETA Vice President Alka Chandna blasted AmplifyBio’s “incompetence,” adding that the federal citation “will not undo the terror and pain that this monkey experienced.” A company spokesperson calls the monkey’s death an “isolated incident” that “has been resolved completely with the USDA.”
But Rolling Stone has also uncovered documentation of another disturbing lab accident that left monkeys with thermal burns on their genitals. The animals were part of a study conducted for the military’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, led by AmplifyBio’s parent company, Battelle.
AmplifyBio’s role was to surgically implant telemeters — battery powered vital sign monitors — into the monkeys before they became test subjects. During recovery from that surgery, seven monkeys developed thermal injuries, including second-degree burns, likely due to a heat blower that was aimed too close to the animals’ lower extremities.
A pair of monkeys suffered “ulcerations on their genitals.” One monkey’s paw was so burned, “the epidermis on the left foot was removed.” AmplifyBio downplays this incident, documented on its own letterhead in an investigative report included with the military study. “The injury referenced was a result of a routine surgery risk,” the company said in a statement, “and was treated immediately.”
The scalded monkeys recovered. But they didn’t live much longer. In the study, Battelle scientists infected the macaques with botulism to assess a treatment hoped to prolong survival from that toxic exposure. The treatment showed some efficacy, but “all eight animals” infected with botulism, the study says, “succumbed … prior to scheduled euthanasia.” These monkeys didn’t go easily, first displaying “labored breathing, shallow respirations, [and] coughing,” with symptoms advancing to “lethargy, gasping, prostrate posture, and death.”
In written answers to questions from Rolling Stone, AmplifyBio insists that it is held to “the highest standards of animal care and use” as a research institution accredited by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care. It also insists that it provides a vital service. “Testing in In vivo (living) models is a required safety step by the FDA in all pharmaceutical development. We provide those services across a range of animal species as required by and in compliance with regulatory agencies.”
Other animal “platforms” advertised on the company’s website include pigs, “mini pigs,” ferrets, rabbits, and a variety of rodents. The company also bills its ability to provide “transgenic” and “other genetically modified animal models.”
Remarkably, Vance is the second Republican Senate candidate to be caught up in an animal welfare controversy this election cycle. An investigation of the medical career of Mehmet “Dr.” Oz alleged that a Columbia University lab he supervised had killed over 300 dogs across dozens of experiments.
But Vance’s politics of distrust — of bashing high technology, the medical establishment, and even institutions of higher learning — makes his efforts to profit from a company like AmplifyBio even stranger.
Vance’s investment in Rumble is more on-brand. That company hosts insidious films by anti-vaxxers, who’ve spread the conspiracy theory that Covid is not a respiratory virus, but actually snake venom added to municipal water, and that those pushing mRNA Covid vaccines want to make you “a hybrid of Satan.”
When it comes to his pocket book, mRNA drugs are just fine with Vance. The company is actively hiring for scientists with experience in mRNA, and a spokesperson for AmplifyBio confirms the company tests drugs that use such genetics as a delivery mechanism: “I cannot imagine that there’s any pharmaceutical safety testing facility on the planet right now that doesn’t work with mRNA based technology,” the spokesperson said. “It’s very popular in drug development.”
An eager culture warrior, Vance demonizes immigrants, lambastes “critical race theory” and blasts “radical gender ideology.” But the company he invests is is unabashedly woke in its H.R. practices. In job listings for positions in its new South San Francisco office, AmplifyBio seeks applicants from the “LGBTQIA+ community” and says it forbids discrimination based on “gender expression” and even “citizenship status.”
All job postings do come with another requirement — one Vance has been vocal in opposing during the campaign. “We are committed to the safety and wellness of our employees and customers,” the biotech company’s ads insist. “Therefore, COVID vaccination is required.”