Fact check: Viral photo shows beagles in Tunisian leishmaniasis study

The claim: A photo shows an experiment, funded by Fauci's agency, that locked dogs' heads in cages 'filled with hungry sandflies'

Spurred by reports from a nonprofit advocacy group, members of Congress have set their sights on government-funded experiments involving dogs. But online, some are sharing a misleading photo to criticize the practice.

On Oct. 22, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to Dr. Anthony Fauci with questions about animal testing funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he heads. The letter came after the White Coat Waste Project, a group that opposes taxpayer-funded animal testing, published a report that found the agency spent $1.68 million between 2018 and 2019 on drug tests involving beagle puppies.

"Of particular concern is the fact that the invoice to NIAID included a line item for 'cordectomy,'" Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., wrote in the letter, which 23 other lawmakers signed. "This cruel procedure ... seems to have been performed so that experimenters would not have to listen to the pained cries of the beagle puppies."

The letter and related media coverage set off a firestorm online. One widely shared photo shows what appears to be two dogs with their heads inside boxes made of netting.

"JUST IN - Fauci's NIH division partly funded a lab to drug dogs and 'lock their heads in cages filled with hungry sandflies so that the insects could eat them alive,'" reads text in an Oct. 23 Instagram post.

The post, which accumulated nearly 2,000 likes within three days, stems from an Oct. 23 tweet from Disclose.tv. That tweet links to an article published one day prior by The Hill. (The article was later updated with additional information from the Washington Post and a group called Americans for Medical Progress.)

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Some conservative websites have picked up claims similar to the one in the Instagram post.

"One of the tortures that the beagles were subjected to included locking their heads in mesh cages filled with infected sand flies so that the parasite-carrying insects could eat them alive," reads an Aug. 31 Gateway Pundit article, which includes the same image of two dogs with their heads trapped. The website published the photo again in an Oct. 24 article with the caption "Fauci’s taxpayer funded animal experiments in Tunisia."

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The photo is real – it stems from a Tunisian study published in July.

Funding from the National Institutes of Health, of which the NIAID is a part, was initially disclosed in the study. But the journal that published the paper later issued a note saying the agency did not fund the experiment, a fact that NIAID confirmed to USA TODAY. The agency has supported research on dogs in the past, however.

USA TODAY reached out to Disclose.tv and the Instagram user who shared the post for comment.

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Image from beagle experiment in Tunisia

The photo in the social media post comes from an article published July 27 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

The study, titled "Enhanced attraction of sand fly vectors of Leishmania infantum to dogs infected with zoonotic visceral leishmaniasis," studied dogs infected with visceral leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease common in East Africa. The study found infected dogs were more attractive to sand flies, meaning they could be a key way the parasites spread between dogs and humans.

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To conduct the experiment, researchers in Tunisia placed the heads of anesthetized dogs in two cages made of netting. Then, sand flies were released into a third, central cage, giving them the opportunity to feed on either the infected or uninfected dog. The experiment used six beagles that had been naturally infected with leishmaniasis as part of a different study.

The published article includes the image pictured in the Instagram post. Researchers wrote the photo shows a "host attractiveness experiment in the laboratory."

Study initially disclosed NIH funding

At the time the Instagram post was published, the study listed funding from the NIH in its financial disclosure. NIAID and PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases later said the agency did not support the experiment.

On Oct. 26 – several days after a slew of social media posts and articles connecting the study to Fauci – PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases added a note to the study saying the NIH "did not provide any funding for this research."

"Any such claim was made in error," the note reads.

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NIAID confirmed to USA TODAY it did not fund the research.

"The manuscript mistakenly cited support from NIAID, when in fact NIAID did not support this specific research shown in the images of the beagles being circulated," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement to USA TODAY. "NIAID has funded a separate project involving the study of a vaccine to prevent leishmaniasis, a serious parasitic disease transmitted by sand flies that poses a threat in particular to U.S. troops and other personnel, as well as U.S. military dogs, in areas where the disease is endemic."

Two of that experiment's principal investigators, Elyes Zhioua of the Pasteur Institute of Tunis and Abhay Satoskar of Ohio State University, co-authored the July study. Their initials were included in the financial disclosure that mentioned NIH funding.

Gateway Pundit's attorney found the NIAID denial unconvincing.

"I find USNAID's (sic) disavowal highly suspect," John Burns, an attorney representing the Gateway Pundit, said in an email. "I would also mention that, whatever ultimately ends up being the truth – it isn't clear to me at this point – our author and publication have not erred in our reporting or methods."

USA TODAY reached out to Zhioua and Satoskar for comment.

NIAID funded experiments involving dogs

The NIAID did not fund the experiment pictured in the Instagram post, but it has funded similar studies involving dogs in the past.

In the NIAID-supported leishmaniasis vaccine study, 12 dogs were injected with an experimental shot at the Pasteur Institute of Tunis. Then, they were allowed to roam outside in an enclosed space during the day.

The research was conducted during sand fly season in an area of Tunisia that's "considered to be hyper-endemic for canine leishmaniasis," an NIAID spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

"The goal of the research was to determine if the experimental vaccine prevented the dogs from becoming infected in a natural setting," the statement says. "Developing a vaccine to prevent leishmaniasis is an important research goal."

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Another experiment involving leishmaniasis was conducted in-house at NIAID in 2016. The White Coat Waste Project wrote in a 2016 report that beagles were exposed to infected sand flies for 22 months before being euthanized and dissected.

More recently, the White Coat Waste Project highlighted an NIAID-funded study involving beagles at the University of Georgia.

Documents obtained by the advocacy group through the Freedom of Information Act show that, beginning in fall 2020, researchers used 28 beagles to test whether a vaccine candidate could prevent lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic illness transmitted by mosquitoes. The dogs were set to be euthanized for blood collection after the experiment concluded.

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"Dogs are a natural host for the B. pahangi parasite and exhibit clinical and pathologic changes like those seen in human filarial infection," said the NIAID statement to USA TODAY. "As such, they represent an appropriate model for testing this investigational vaccine prior to evaluation in humans."

Another NIAID-supported study, highlighted by the White Coat Waste Project, tested potential HIV/AIDS drugs on beagles.

The experiment was conducted by SRI International, a nonprofit research institute that contracted with NIAID. According to documents obtained by the White Coat Waste Project and shared with USA TODAY, 44 beagle puppies had their vocal cords cut out, a procedure known as cordectomy. They were later euthanized.

The NIAID statement to USA TODAY said cordectomies, "conducted humanely under anesthesia," may be used in research facilities "to reduce noise," which can be stressful to the animals and lead to hearing loss in humans. The American Veterinary Association says the practice "should not be used as an alternative to appropriate animal management and facility design."

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More than 58,000 dogs were used in research in the U.S. during the 2019 fiscal year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Certain laws and regulatory standards, including the Animal Welfare Act and the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, govern the treatment of animals in research settings.

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that a photo shows an NIAID-funded experiment that locked dogs' heads in cages "filled with hungry sandflies."

At the time the Instagram post was published, the study pictured in the photo did list funding from the NIH. But the journal later issued a publisher's note saying the institute did not fund the experiment. The NIAID has confirmed that fact.

However, the agency has previously supported studies involving beagles. Some of those experiments involved methods similar to what is pictured in the Instagram post.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Photo doesn't show dog study funded by Dr. Fauci's agency