Scientists are desperate to find suitable monkeys to serve as test subjects for future vaccine trials. The primates cost $10,000 each, but right now it is not a matter of money that is holding up research. There just are not enough of the specially bred monkeys to supply the demand.
According to The New York Times, Mark Lewis, CEO of Bioqual, said he was unable to furnish enough monkeys to scientists at Moderna and Johnson & Johnson in a timely manner as the pharmaceutical companies scrambled to find research animals to test their vaccines.
Two factors have caused the global shortage of monkeys that share 90% of our DNA. The pandemic’s race for a vaccine increased the demand, and there has been a recent ban on the sale of wildlife from China that supplies most of the lab animals worldwide.
Officials in the U.S. have been talking about creating an emergency stockpile of monkeys, like the reserves maintained by the government for oil and grain, according to the Times, but lack of funds impeded the process.
Currently the U.S. has about 22,000 lab monkeys on hand for research. Most are pink-faced rhesus macaques. As variants threaten to make current COVID-19 vaccines obsolete, the need for more research is critical. Researchers are scouring the world for preferred test subjects such as rhesus macaques and cynomolgus macaques, but the Times reports that no country can match China’s supply of 33,818 primates to the U.S. in 2019.
Another snag is that most major airline carriers refuse to transport research animals after giving into pressure from animal rights groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.) This poses another problem — obtaining live animals to develop safe and effective treatments.
Healthcare experts say that we desperately need to create a stockpile reserve of monkeys to grapple with upcoming COVID-19 variants. While talk of creating such a reserve began a decade ago, according to USA Today, it was never accomplished due to a shortage of money and time.
The U.S. currently has seven primate research centers that provide animals not only for vaccine development but also to assist in research for other diseases such as Alzheimer’s and AIDS.
In the meantime, scientists around the world, even in China, are scrambling to find enough monkeys for their COVID-19 vaccine research.
“There is a shortage,” said Dr. Skip Bohm, associate director, and chief veterinary medical officer of the Tulane National Primate Research Center.
“We’ve always been in a state where we were always very close to the level of production to meeting the demand for research, and that has been the status for several years,” Bohm said. “When the COVID pandemic came about, that just pressed us even further.”
While animal rights advocates condemn using primates in experiments, researchers say it's essential for development of medical science.
“We all hope there’s a day we don’t have to use animals in research but right now not all humans are going to submit for an examination where they get regular x-rays, regular CT analysis, or blood analysis,” Bohm said.
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