The company Neuralink, which develops Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface, is under investigation by the US Department of Transportation for allegedly unsafely packaging and transporting infected equipment, a DOT spokesperson confirmed to CNBC.
In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday, the Physicians Committee on Animal Welfare said it obtained public records indicating that Neuralink may have mishandled devices that carried infectious pathogens that posed a risk to human health in 2019.
According to the letter, the devices were removed from the brains of nonhuman primates and may have been contaminated with viruses such as herpes B and antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as staph and Klebsiella. PCRM claimed that the materials were not stored and transported properly, possibly because Neuralink employees did not receive proper safety training.
A DOT spokesman told CNBC that it is “standard practice” to investigate alleged violations of hazardous materials transportation regulations. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the DOT, is conducting a “standard investigation to ensure compliance and public safety of workers and the public” based on information received from PCRM, the spokesman said.
Neuralink representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Neuralink is one of many companies in the brain-computer interface, or BCI, industry. A BCI is a system that decodes brain signals and translates them into commands for external technology, allowing patients to move cursors, type text, and even access smart home devices using only their minds. Several companies have successfully created devices with such capabilities.
Musk, who is also the CEO of the company Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter, founded Neuralink in 2016 with a group of scientists and engineers. The company is developing a BCI that is designed to be injected directly into brain tissue, and it has not yet tested its device on humans, but Musk said he hopes to do so this year.
Public records obtained by PCRM and reviewed by CNBC include emails exchanged between Neuralink and UC Davis. The university partnered with Neuralink between 2017 and 2020 to help the company conduct experiments on primates.
In one exchange in March 2019, a UC Davis employee, whose name has been redacted, wrote in an email that the hardware had been mishandled and that hazardous materials should be transported by a trained hazardous materials handler.
The employee wrote that if Neuralink staff had not received the necessary training, UC Davis staff were “always happy” to package and ship the materials.
“Because the hardware components of the explanted neural device are not sealed and it has not been disinfected before leaving the Primate Center, it poses a risk to anyone potentially coming into contact with the device,” the UC Davis official said in an email. “Simply labeling ‘unsafe’ does not address the risk of potential herpes B infection.
In another case in April 2019, a UC Davis employee, whose name has been redacted, wrote in an email that three explanted devices arrived in an “open box with no secondary container.” A staff member noted that monkey-infested equipment put members of the Primate Center at risk.
“This is a danger to anyone who comes in contact with contaminated deplanted equipment, and we make a big deal about it because we care about people’s safety,” the employee said in an email.
PCRM obtained these records from UC Davis through a public information request. Because Neuralink is a private company, it is not subject to public records laws. UC Davis officials did not respond to requests for comment.
PCRM opposes the use of animal testing in medical research, and the group has previously raised concerns about Neuralink. In February 2022, the group filed a complaint with the USDA alleging that Neuralink violated the Animal Welfare Act during its partnership with UC Davis. The complaint was sent to the USDA’s inspector general, who allegedly launched a federal investigation into the company, according to Reuters.
The advocacy group also asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December to investigate Neuralink for possible violations of good laboratory practices.
USDA and FDA officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Ryan Merkley, director of research advocacy at PCRM, said the latest DOT investigation suggests Neuralink was “sloppy in a whole new way,” he told CNBC. He said there was no evidence that anyone had been infected by exposure to the hardware, but that the concerned tone of UC Davis staff in the emails “reflects the seriousness of this potential pathogen leak.”
“It’s a whole other thing that obviously affects not only the animals, but the people who work at Neuralink, the people who work at UC Davis, and everyone they come in contact with,” he said.