Meanwhile, China has invested in large monkey-breeding facilities and is a major supplier for the rest of the world. In China, breeding monkeys is cheaper and the animal-rights movement is also quieter. The biopharmaceutical industry in the U.S., in particular, relies heavily on macaques bred in China. The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China had already made importing monkeys more expensive. Then, when the pandemic hit earlier this year, China stopped exporting them entirely. “I’m not seeing any nonhuman primates moving out of China,” says Matthew R. Bailey, the president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which advocates for animal research. Industry experts speculate that China, whose scientists are also racing to find COVID-19 treatments, is interested in keeping the animals for its own studies. No one knows when China might start exporting monkeys again.
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This reliance on primates from China, Bailey says, is a strategic problem. As primate research becomes harder to do in the U.S., that work may simply get shifted abroad. “Is the American public okay with that? Do we want treatments and cures to be developed here? Or are we okay with them being developed in other countries?” Bailey asks. While many have called for international collaboration in the fight against COVID-19, the pandemic has increased the salience of borders and inflamed “vaccine nationalism,” fears that any country that develops a vaccine first will hoard it for its own citizens.
The current monkey shortage is also forcing scientists to think creatively about how to reduce the number of animals needed for research. For example, says Jeffrey Roberts, the associate director of primate services at the California National Primate Research Center, the different NIH-funded centers are trying to use one group of animals as controls in experiments across different labs. In a typical randomized controlled trial, the control animals are the ones not given the treatment, so they serve as a baseline for comparison. Having the control group and the treated groups in different labs is unusual; to make sure that small changes from lab to lab don’t affect the results, scientists have to be extremely careful to harmonize their protocols. “It’s really impressive,” Roberts says. “I’ve been involved in nonhuman-primate research for 37 years, and I’ve never, ever seen this degree of coordination between different research institutes.”
The shortage is also unlikely to let up soon. Lewis, whose company, Bioqual, has done primate research for several COVID-19 studies, including on Moderna’s vaccine, says that Bioqual was initially able to reuse some animals from non-disease studies. That supply has been used up now; monkeys infected with COVID-19 are euthanized to prevent spread to other monkeys or even potentially humans. The cost of a macaque has since doubled to almost $10,000, according to Lewis. Big companies, he says, which purchase thousands of animals, are also locking out smaller research outfits. And as scientists now try to resume non-COVID-19 research in primates, they’re also contending with delays and much more expensive monkeys. “This may just be the beginning. And I think that we’re all preparing for there to be significant delays,” says R. Keith Reeves, a virologist at Harvard working on HIV.