Unusual Shortage Could Affect Vaccine Research

US doesn't have enough test monkeys
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 1, 2020 8:11 AM CDT
Updated Sep 1, 2020 9:40 AM CDT
US Experts: We Need More Research Monkeys
A macaque looks at the camera from inside an enclosure.   (Getty Images/Gustavo Pinela)

The US needs a coronavirus vaccine. It also needs monkeys on which to test that vaccine, and that's where we have a problem. As the Atlantic reports, there is a national shortage of "nonhuman primates" used in animal testing, most of which come from China. The country provided 60% of the nearly 35,000 monkeys imported to the US last year, per the Atlantic. But wildlife transports stopped with the pandemic, even as demand increased, reports the Globe and Mail, exacerbating an existing problem. Back in 2018, the National Institutes of Health found that NIH-funded primate centers weren't ready for future demand and proposed a "strategic monkey reserve" that would provide "surge capability for unpredictable disease outbreaks." That reserve was never created. Now, the NIH must decide which studies can make use of its seven centers, with some important research being shoved aside.

A huge issue is funding. Breeding takes years and the primates are much more expensive to house and feed than, say, hamsters. They're also vitally important. Monkeys are closely related to humans, with immune systems "so similar that vaccine studies can use the same tests to measure antibodies in both," per the Atlantic. A disease can also be tracked through infants with daily monitoring. But with this monkey shortage, some pharmaceutical companies are trying to move straight to human trials, which is problematic because people are naturally exposed to COVID-19 and not observed daily. The alternative might be relying on countries like China to develop treatments. If that doesn't suit the American public, "there needs to be a real national investment to build the infrastructure, not only for this pandemic, but also for the future with the next pandemic," says Jay Rappaport of the Tulane National Primate Center. (More coronavirus vaccine stories.)

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