Mark Lewis was desperate to find monkeys. Millions of human lives all over the world were at stake.
Mr. Lewis, CEO of Bioqual, was responsible for supplying laboratory monkeys to pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Johnson & johnson, who needed the animals to develop their Covid-19 vaccines. But as the coronavirus swept across the United States last year, there were few specially bred monkeys in the world.
Unable to supply scientists with monkeys, which can cost more than $ 10,000 each, a dozen companies found themselves searching for research animals at the height of the pandemic.
“We lost work because we couldn’t deliver the animals on time,” Lewis said.
The world needs monkeys, whose DNA closely resembles that of humans, to develop Covid-19 vaccines. But a global shortage, resulting from unexpected demand caused by the pandemic, has been exacerbated by a recent ban on the sale of wild animals from China, the largest supplier of laboratory animals.
The latest shortage has reignited talks about creating a Strategic Monkey Reserve in the United States, an emergency stockpile similar to those maintained by the government for oil and grains.
As new variants of the coronavirus threaten to render the current batch of vaccines obsolete, scientists rush to find new sources of monkeys, and the United States reassesses its dependence on China, a rival with its own biotechnological ambitions.
US scientists have searched private and government-funded facilities in Southeast Asia as well as Mauritius, a small island nation off the coast of Southeast Africa, for stocks of their favorite test subjects, rhesus macaques and cynomolgus macaques, also known as long-tailed macaques.
But no country can compensate for what China previously provided. Before the pandemic, China supplied more than 60% of the 33,818 primates, mostly cynomolgus macaques, imported to the United States in 2019, according to analyst estimates based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The United States has as many as 25,000 laboratory monkeys – mostly pink-faced rhesus macaques – in their seven primate centers. About 600 to 800 of these animals have been researched for coronaviruses since the start of the pandemic.
Scientists say monkeys are ideal specimens for researching coronavirus vaccines before they are tested on humans. Primates share over 90% of our DNA, and their similar biology means they can be tested with nasal swabs and have their lungs scanned. Scientists say it is almost impossible to find a substitute for testing Covid-19 vaccines, although drugs such as dexamethasone, the steroid used to treat President Donald J. Trump, has been tested on hamsters.
The United States once relied on India to supply rhesus macaques. But in 1978, India stopped its exports after the Indian press reported that the monkeys were being used in military tests in the United States. Pharmaceutical companies have been looking for an alternative.
Eventually, they landed on China.
The pandemic has shattered what had been a decades-long relationship between American scientists and Chinese suppliers.
“When the Chinese market closed, it just forced everyone to turn to a smaller number of animals available,” Lewis said.
For years, several airlines, including major US carriers, have also refused to transport animals used in medical research due to opposition from animal rights activists.
In the meantime, the price of a cynomolgus monkey has more than doubled from a year ago to over $ 10,000, Mr Lewis said. Scientists who are researching cures for other illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease and AIDS, say their work has been delayed as the priority for animals goes to coronavirus researchers.
The shortage has led a growing number of American scientists to ask the government to ensure a constant supply of animals.
Skip Bohm, associate director and chief veterinarian of the Tulane National Primate Research Center outside of New Orleans, said the discussion for a strategic ape reserve began about 10 years ago between the directors of the national primate research centers. But a stock was never created because of the amount of money and time required to build a breeding program.
“Our idea was a bit like the strategic oil reserve, in that there is a lot and a lot of fuel out there that is only used in an emergency,” Professor Bohm said.
But as new variants of the virus are discovered, potentially restarting the race for a vaccine, scientists say the government must act on the stock immediately.
“The strategic ape reserve is exactly what we needed to deal with Covid, and we just don’t have it,” said Keith Reeves, senior researcher at the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School.
But a strong strategic reserve may still be unable to meet the growing demand for laboratory animals, as Chinese researchers have learned. Even with a government-controlled stock of around 45,000 monkeys, Chinese researchers say they are also facing a shortage.
Researchers often collect hundreds of specimens of a single monkey, whose tissues can be frozen for years and studied over long periods of time. Scientists say they get the best out of each animal, but monkeys infected with Covid-19 cannot be returned to live among other healthy animals and must ultimately be euthanized.
In January, Shen Weiguo, general manager of Shanghai Technology Venture Capital Group, told local lawmakers that three major biomedical companies in the city were short of 2,750 research monkeys last year, according to a report in the news media. ‘State. The deficit is expected to grow by 15% per year over the next five years, Mr. Shen said.
Hubei Topgene Biotechnology breeds monkeys for its own research and for export. The United States was previously its main export destination, but the company currently does not have enough animals to conduct its own experiments, said Yan Shuo, sales manager.
“Now it’s not even about the money,” Mr. Yan said. “We don’t even have monkeys to sell overseas.”
The United States has seven National Primate Research Centers, where animals, when not researched, live in colonies with access to the outdoors and enrichment activities. The facilities are affiliated with research universities and funded by the National Institutes of Health. Animal rights activists have long accused centers of abuse, including separating babies from their mothers.
Matthew R. Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, said he was preparing to raise the ape shortage with the Biden administration. He said China’s decision to halt exports at the start of the pandemic was “probably a cautious emergency measure,” but suggested that China could restart its exports given what is now known. on the spread of the virus.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the ban did not target specific species or countries.
“Once the international situation improves and import and export conditions are met, “the ministry said in a statement,” China will actively consider resuming the approval of imports and exports and other related work ”.
Experts said the United States must take some responsibility for not having enough research monkeys.
The budgets of the national primate centers have remained stable or declined for more than a decade. Koen Van Rompay, an infectious disease expert at the California National Primate Research Center, said the federal government asked the center to expand its breeding colonies about 10 years ago, but did not give it increased funding, he therefore reduced his colony instead.
“What we’ve done in a number of cases is we’ve given our females birth control,” said Dr. Van Rompay. “So there would be fewer babies born in the spring.”
At a panel hosted by the National Institutes of Health in December 2018, scientists discussed the challenges facing primate supply in America. There was then a realization that “if China decides to turn off the tap, we will be in big trouble,” said Jeffrey Roberts, associate director of the California National Primate Research Center.
Participants “agreed that the need to breed cynomolgus macaques at the national level is critical and could jeopardize biomedical research in the United States as a whole, if not met,” according to a report from the meeting. “They stressed that it may already be too late to meet this need, but that it will certainly be too late in a few months.”
Amber wang and Elsie Chen contributed to the research.