When biotechnology giant Genentech began negotiating with the city of Dixon in 2006 to build a new research facility, the news was seen as very favorable for our small city. A 2007 Dixon Tribune article revealed an agreement had been reached, saying the project would help with “ … the research and development of breakthrough therapies to treat cancer and serious diseases.”
Genentech itself said the facility would be a research support facility … to support activities conducted at other Genentech facilities.”
What Genentech deliberately left out was that the research in Dixon would primarily be animal testing, a controversial activity.
A reason Genentech gave for locating in Dixon (where operations began in late 2009 or early 2010) was closeness to University of California, Davis, where graduates could be recruited to work in the new facility.
Another reason for locating in Dixon, in my opinion, was to isolate its animal testing operations in one out-of-the-way location. It might’ve been located in nearby Vacaville, as part of Genentech’s large manufacturing operation there, but if animal rights activists chose to picket there, it might’ve interrupted operations.
As it is, Dixon’s animal testing operation appears to support the company’s main research facility in South San Francisco – 75 miles away. Carrying research materials between the two sites can’t be cheap and easy.
Genentech not only didn’t disclose its main mission in Dixon as animal testing, but has gone to some lengths to stay off the radar of public knowledge. Genentech’s main Web site doesn’t list Dixon as one of its facilities even though about 1.5 percent (or 160) of its worldwide employees work there. Genentech's building carries no logo or sign anywhere on the property indicating that Genentech owns and runs the building. A high fence surrounds the property.
As one industry insider told me, “It’s a hush-hush operation.” Departing Dixon Economic Development Director Mark Heckey confirmed that the facility is primarily an animal-testing operation.
As to the ethical questions concerning animal testing – I personally don’t oppose animal testing, per se, as long as it’s done with lower-order animals such as rats, mice, rabbits, and hamsters (which Genentech appears to use). I do oppose the use of higher-order mammals such as monkeys, which Genentech appears not to use. Deliberately subjecting animals to pain, illness, and even death is awful, but still preferable to using humans as the initial guinea pigs. Someday, I’m sure, there will be sure-fire ways to test new therapies without using animals.
What I do object to is a company coming into Dixon and not revealing to the public the true nature of its operations, especially when those operations are controversial. Imagine if a company processing radioactive wastes asking for approval to establish itself in Dixon portrayed itself as only a “chemical reformulation company.”
Dixon officials must’ve been bowled over when prestigious Genentech approached them about locating here. They saw it as opening the door for other biotech firms to move in, putting Dixon on the map and providing jobs and tax revenue.
However, in November 2006 Genentech and then-City Manager Warren Salmons signed a non-disclosure agreement to not reveal to the public or media exactly what Genentech would be doing in its proposed facility, so the city was complicit in not revealing the animal-testing mission. I’m not sure how many city staff and elected officials were in on the secret.
When I recently filed a public records request to review city information relating to Genentech coming to Dixon, I indicated I knew about the animal testing, and apparently the city notified the company of this fact. I received a letter from Genentech’s legal firm, Meyers Nave of Oakland, saying that certain details about its animal test procedures would be kept from me, as well as details about its facility security systems. In the letter, lawyer Stephen Muzio wrote, “Concerns regarding hostile actions against this research support facility are well-founded … .”
It’s true that animal-rights advocates have breached several animal-testing facilities in the U.S. and opened the cages, and so on. The citizens of Dixon deserve to know that Genentech’s Dixon building could be exposed to picketing or other actions.
There’s one other aspect of the Genentech operation I can only speculate about. In a statement to the city of Dixon, Genentech stated that “There are no planned uses of biohazardous materials at the (facility).” Nonetheless, there have to be dead animals to deal with.
In the area of biohazards, it’s good that Genentech has been working mostly with medicines and therapies to treat non-infectious diseases and immune disorders. However, if they move into the area of HIV/AIDS drugs, and test those drugs on animals in Dixon infected with HIV/AIDS, that could be a biohazard concern.
A note about Genentech: On the plus side, the company (purchased by international pharmaceutical company Roche in 2009) has developed some very beneficial medicines and treatments over the years and many people are only alive today because of their work. For example, I’ve been operated on for basal cell skin cancer several times, and am glad to see Genentech released a product this year to treat advanced cases of the disease.
It would be good if Genentech in Dixon emerged from its bunker mentality (and possible feelings of guilt) and took more of a part in city affairs. For example, its facility in Vacaville belongs to that city’s Chamber of Commerce, but the Dixon operation isn’t a C of C member.
Also, the fact that certain people in Dixon’s city government agreed to keep important information from its citizens points to a need for greater transparency. A vote in November for a Sunshine Ordinance (or Open Government Act) in Dixon to require more openness would help prevent this sort of problem in the future.
The odd thing is that currently just outside Dixon is a well-known slaughterhouse which has never seen the need to hide that it daily kills sheep for food purposes.