Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink is being investigated by the US Department of Transportation for allegedly packaging and shipping contaminated hardware in an unsafe manner, a DOT spokesperson confirmed to CNBC.
In a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday, the animal welfare group’s Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said it had obtained public records suggesting Neuralink may have mishandled devices carrying infectious pathogens that pose a risk for human health in 2019
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 Staphylococcus and Klebsiella, according to the letter. PCRM claims the materials were not properly stored or transported, possibly because Neuralink employees did not receive proper safety training.
A DOT spokesperson told CNBC that it is “standard practice” to investigate suspected violations of hazardous material transportation rules. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the DOT, is conducting a “standard investigation to ensure compliance and the public safety of workers and the public” based on information received from the PCRM, the spokesman said.
Neuralink representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Neuralink is one of many companies in the emerging brain-computer interface, or BCI, industry. BCI is a system that deciphers brain signals and translates them into commands for external technology, allowing patients to move cursors, type and even access smart home devices using only their minds. Several companies have successfully created devices with these capabilities.
Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter, co-founded Neuralink in 2016 with a group of scientists and engineers. The company is developing a BCI that is designed to be inserted directly into brain tissue, and while it has yet to test its device in humans, Musk said he hopes to do so this year.
Public records obtained by PCRM that were 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 improperly handled and that the transportation of hazardous materials should be done by a trained hazardous materials handler.
The official wrote that if Neuralink employees have not completed the required training, UC Davis employees are “always happy” to package and ship materials.
“Because the hardware components of the explanted neural device are not sealed and it is not disinfected before leaving the Primate Center, it poses a risk to everyone potentially coming into contact with the device,” the UC Davis official said in the email. “Simply labeling it as ‘dangerous’ does not account for the risk of potentially contracting herpes B.”
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.” The official noted that the unrestrained, monkey-infested hardware put members of the Primate Center at risk.
“This is exposure to anyone who comes into contact with the contaminated explanted hardware, and we’re making a big deal about it because we’re concerned about people’s safety,” the official said in the 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 raised concerns about Neuralink before. 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 has been referred to the USDA inspector general, who says he has opened a federal investigation into the company, according to a Reuters report.
The advocacy group also asked the US 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 DOT’s latest investigation suggests Neuralink is “negligent 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 involved, but the people working at Neuralink, the people working at UC Davis and everyone they come in contact with,” he said.