Mark Lewis was dying to find monkeys. Millions of lives were at risk around the world.
Lewis, CEO of Bioqual, was responsible for supplying the lab overalls to pharmaceutical companies like Moderna and Johnson & Johnson that animals needed to develop their COVID-19 vaccines. Last year, when the coronavirus swept through the United States, almost no monkeys were bred around the world specifically bred for this purpose.
In the absence of a supply of monkeys for scientific purposes, which can cost more than $ 10,000 each, nearly a dozen companies had to do everything possible to find these animal species at the height of the pandemic.
“We lost jobs because we couldn’t take care of the animals during that time,” said Lewis.
The world needs monkeys, primates with very human DNA, to develop vaccines against COVID-19. However, a recent ban on the sale of wild animals from China, the main supplier of laboratory animals, has exacerbated a global shortage caused by unexpected demand due to the pandemic.
The recent shortage has rekindled the debate over the creation of a strategic monkey reserve in the United States, an emergency reserve that resembles the government-maintained oil and grain reserves.
As new variants of the coronavirus threaten to obsolete the current amount of vaccines, scientists are looking for new monkey sources and the US is reassessing its reliance on China, a rival with its own biotech ambitions.
The pandemic has cleared China’s control over the supply of emergency products, including the masks and medicines the United States needs in a crisis.
American scientists have searched both private and government-funded facilities in Southeast Asia and Mauritius, a tiny island in Southeast Africa, for their preferred subjects, the rhesus and cynomolgus macaques, also known as long-tailed macaques.
However, no country can compensate for the supply from China. Prior to the 2019 pandemic, China supplied more than 60 percent of the 33,818 primates, mostly cynomolgus macaques, that were imported into the United States. This is based on analyst estimates based on data from the Centers for Control and Management. Disease prevention.
The United States has up to 25,000 laboratory monkeys – mostly pink-faced rhesus monkeys – in its seven primate centers. Since the pandemic began, between 600 and 800 of these animals have been the subject of coronavirus research.
According to scientists, monkeys are ideal samples to study COVID-19 vaccines before testing on humans. Primates share more than 90 percent of our DNA and, thanks to their biology, can be tested with nasal swabs and scanned lungs. Scientists say finding a substitute for testing COVID-19 vaccines is nearly impossible, despite drugs like dexamethasone, the steroid ex-president Donald Trump who self-medicated, have been tested on hamsters.
In the past, the United States turned to India for supplying rhesus monkeys. In 1978 India stopped exporting after the Indian press reported that the overalls were being used for military testing in the United States. Pharmaceutical companies were looking for an alternative.
In the end they reached China.
The pandemic disrupted the decades-long relationship between American scientists and Chinese suppliers.
“The closure of the Chinese market forced everyone to turn to less available animals,” said Lewis.
For years, several airlines, including large American ones, have also refused to transport animals used in medical research because animal rights activists oppose it.
Meanwhile, the price of a cynomolgus monkey has more than doubled year over year and is well over $ 10,000, according to Lewis. Scientists researching cures for other diseases such as Alzheimer’s and AIDS say their work has been delayed as coronavirus researchers prioritize animals.
Due to the shortage, more and more American scientists have begun to urge the government to ensure steady supplies for the animals.
Skip Bohm, assistant director and chief veterinarian of the National Primate Research Center at Tulane University outside of New Orleans, noted that the strategic ape sanctuary debate among directors of the national primate research centers began about 10 years ago. However, due to the time and money involved in starting a breeding program, a reserve was never created.
“Our idea was something like a strategic oil reserve in the sense that there is a lot, a lot of fuel that is only used in an emergency,” said Bohm.
With the discovery of new variants of the virus that could resume the race for a vaccine, scientists say the government must take immediate action to create the reserve.
“The strategic monkey reserve is exactly what we need to fight COVID and we just don’t have it,” said Keith Reeves, principal researcher at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research.
However, a strong strategic reserve may not be able to meet stratospheric demand for laboratory animals, researchers in China have found. Even with a reserve of around 45,000 monkeys under state control, researchers from China say they are struggling with shortages.
Researchers often collect hundreds of samples from a single monkey whose tissues can be frozen for years and examined over long periods of time. Scientists say they make the most of every animal, but monkeys infected with COVID-19 cannot return to live with other healthy animals and must ultimately be euthanized.
In January, Shen Weiguo, CEO of Shanghai Tech Venture Capital Group, told local lawmakers that the city’s three major biomedical companies needed and did not have 2,750 research monkeys, according to a media report last year. The deficit is set to grow 15 percent annually for the next five years, Shen said.
Hubei Topgene Biotechnology breeds monkeys for its own research and for export. The US used to be the main export destination, but currently the company does not have enough animals to conduct its own experiments, said Yan Shuo, sales director.
“Now it’s not even about money,” said Yan. “We don’t even have monkeys to sell abroad.”
The United States has seven primate research centers nationwide where animals, when not involved in the research, live in colonies with access to nature and enrichment activities. The facilities are affiliated with universities and funded by the National Institutes of Health. For years, animal rights activists have accused the centers of abuse, such as separating boys and mothers.
Matthew R. Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, said he was preparing to introduce the monkey shortage problem to the Biden administration. Bailey mentioned that China’s decision to halt exports at the start of the pandemic “was likely a prudent emergency maneuver,” but suggested that China could export again now that the virus is known to be spreading.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the ban has no specific targets, species, or countries.
“If the international situation improves and conditions for import and export are met, China will carefully consider resuming imports and exports and other related activities,” the ministry said in a statement.
Experts said the United States had some responsibility for not having enough research monkeys.
Budgets for national primate centers have been stable or declining 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 ten years ago but did not provide further funding, so the colony ended up declining.
“In several cases we have given birth controls to our women,” said Van Rompay. “So fewer babies were born in the spring.”
In a panel hosted by the National Institutes of Health in December 2018, scientists discussed the challenges facing American primate care. It was then determined that “if China decides to shut the faucet, we will be in serious trouble,” said Jeffrey Roberts, assistant director of the California National Primate Research Center.
Participants “agreed that the need to breed cynomolgus macaques in the country is essential and, if not met, could jeopardize biomedical research in the United States as a whole,” said a session report. “They stressed that it may be too late to meet these needs, but it will certainly be in a few months.”
Amber Wang and Elsie Chen helped with the investigation.
Sui-Lee Wee is the New York Times correspondent in Singapore. She has covered China for nearly a decade, writing on social issues, gender, genetic surveillance, health care, and the interface between demographics and the economy. @ Suilee