Future Vaccines Depend on Test Subjects in Short Supply: Monkeys

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Veterinary techs distribute food every morning to more than 5,000 monkeys at the Tulane University National Primate Research Center outside New Orleans.
Veterinary techs distribute food every morning to more than 5,000 monkeys at the Tulane University National Primate Research Center outside New Orleans.

Future Vaccines Depend on Test Subjects in Short Supply: Monkeys

Veterinary techs distribute food every morning to more than 5,000 monkeys at the Tulane University National Primate Research Center outside New Orleans.Credit…

By Sui-Lee Wee

Photographs and Video by Bryan Tarnowski

  • Feb. 23, 2021

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Mark Lewis was desperate to find monkeys. Millions of human lives, all over the world, were at stake.

Mr. Lewis, the chief executive of Bioqual, was responsible for providing lab monkeys to pharmaceutical companies like Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, which needed the animals to develop their Covid-19 vaccines. But as the coronavirus swept across the United States last year, there were few of the specially bred monkeys to be found anywhere in the world.

Unable to furnish scientists with monkeys, which can cost more than $10,000 each, about a dozen companies were left scrambling for research animals at the height of the pandemic.

“We lost work because we couldn’t supply the animals in the time frame,” Mr. Lewis said.

The world needs monkeys, whose DNA closely resembles that of humans, to develop Covid-19 vaccines. But a global shortage, resulting from the unexpected demand caused by the pandemic, has been exacerbated by a recent ban on the sale of wildlife from China, the leading supplier of the lab animals.

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The latest shortage has revived talk about creating a strategic monkey reserve in the United States, an emergency stockpile similar to those maintained by the government for oil and grain.

The United States has as many 25,000 lab monkeys at its seven primate centers. The majority are pink-faced rhesus macaques, like these at Tulane. 
The United States has as many 25,000 lab monkeys at its seven primate centers. The majority are pink-faced rhesus macaques, like these at Tulane. 
The monkeys may work for peanuts, but they are invaluable as test subjects for coronavirus vaccines.
The monkeys may work for peanuts, but they are invaluable as test subjects for coronavirus vaccines.

As new variants of the coronavirus threaten to make the current batch of vaccines obsolete, scientists are racing to find new sources of monkeys, and the United States is reassessing its reliance on China, a rival with its own biotech ambitions.

The pandemic has underscored how much China controls the supply of lifesaving goods, including masks and drugs, that the United States needs in a crisis.

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American scientists have searched private and government-funded facilities in Southeast Asia as well as Mauritius, a tiny island nation off southeast Africa, for stocks of their preferred test subjects, rhesus macaques and cynomolgus macaques, also known as long-tailed macaques.YOUR CORONAVIRUS TRACKER: We’ll send you the latest data for places you care about each day.Sign Up

But no country can make up for what China previously supplied. Before the pandemic, China provided over 60 percent of the 33,818 primates, mostly cynomolgus macaques, imported into 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 25,000 lab monkeys — predominantly pink-faced rhesus macaques — at its seven primate centers. About 600 to 800 of those animals have been subject to coronavirus research since the pandemic began.

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Scientists say monkeys are the ideal specimens for researching coronavirus vaccines before they are tested on humans. The primates share more than 90 percent 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 to test Covid-19 vaccines in, although drugs such as dexamethasone, the steroid that was used to treat President Donald J. Trump, have been tested in hamsters.

The United States once relied on India to supply rhesus macaques. But in 1978, India halted its exports after the Indian press reported that the monkeys were being used in military testing in the United States. Pharmaceutical companies searched for an alternative.

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Eventually, they landed on China.

The pandemic upset what had been a decades-long relationship between American scientists and Chinese suppliers.

The Tulane lab is one of seven national primate research centers. When not undergoing research, the monkeys live in colonies with access to the outdoors and enrichment activities.
The Tulane lab is one of seven national primate research centers. When not undergoing research, the monkeys live in colonies with access to the outdoors and enrichment activities.
The United States once relied on India to supply rhesus macaques, but India halted its exports in 1978.
The United States once relied on India to supply rhesus macaques, but India halted its exports in 1978.

“When the China market closed down, that just forced everyone to go to a smaller number of available animals,” said Mr. Lewis.

More: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/23/business/covid-vaccine-monkeys.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR3mtPDW9FXdGxEq2pgYEVpQ2KmMsDQhqNc_rFPZK7vIguFTvnNT4aVxC7Q

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