Future vaccines depend on test subjects in short supply: monkeys

Mark Lewis was desperate to find monkeys. Millions of human lives are at stake around the world.

Lewis, the CEO of Bioqual, was responsible for providing laboratory coveralls to pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, which needed the animals to develop their COVID-19 vaccines. But when the coronavirus swept through the United States last year, there were few specially bred monkeys anywhere in the world.

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

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“We lost our jobs because we couldn’t supply the animals in the time period,” Lewis said.

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

The latest shortage has rekindled rumors about the creation of a strategic monkey reserve in the United States, an emergency reserve similar to those the government maintains for oil and grains.

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

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

American scientists have searched private and government-funded facilities in Southeast Asia, as well as Mauritius, a small island nation in Southeast Africa, looking for populations of their preferred test subjects, rhesus macaques and cynomolgus macaques, as well. known as long-tailed macaques.

But no country can make up for what China previously supplied. Before the pandemic, China provided more than 60% 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 up to 25,000 laboratory monkeys, predominantly pink-faced rhesus macaques, in its seven primate centers. About 600 to 800 of those animals have been the subject of coronavirus research since the pandemic began.

Scientists say monkeys are the ideal samples to research coronavirus vaccines before testing them in humans. Primates share more than 90% of our DNA, and their similar biology means that they can be analyzed with nasal swabs and their lungs scanned. Scientists say it is almost impossible to find a substitute for testing COVID-19 vaccines, although drugs such as dexamethasone, the steroid used to treat former President Donald Trump, have been tested in hamsters.

The United States once depended on India for its supply of rhesus macaques. But in 1978, India stopped its exports after the Indian press reported that the monkeys were being used in military tests in the United States. The pharmaceutical companies looked for an alternative.

Finally, they landed in China.

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

“When the Chinese market closed, that just forced everyone to go to fewer available animals,” Lewis said.

For years, several airlines, including major US airlines, have also refused to transport animals used in medical research due to opposition from animal welfare activists.

Meanwhile, the price of a cynomolgus monkey has more than doubled from a year ago to more than $ 10,000, Lewis said. Scientists researching cures for other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and AIDS, say their work has been delayed as the priority for animals goes to coronavirus researchers.

The shortage has prompted a growing number of American scientists to call on the government to ensure a steady supply of animals.

Skip Bohm, associate director and veterinary medical director at the Tulane National Primate Research Center outside New Orleans, said discussion about a strategic monkey reserve began about 10 years ago among the directors of the national research centers of primates. But a reserve was never created due to the amount of money and time required to build a breeding program.

“Our idea was a kind of strategic oil reserve, in the sense that there is a lot, a lot of fuel somewhere that is only used in an emergency,” Bohm said.

But as new variants of the virus are discovered, which could restart the race for a vaccine, scientists say the government must act on the stockpile immediately.

“The strategic monkey reserve is exactly what we needed to deal with COVID, and we just didn’t have it,” said Keith Reeves, principal investigator at the Harvard Medical School Center for Virology and Vaccine Research.

But a robust strategic reserve may still be unable to meet the growing demand for laboratory animals, as researchers in China have learned. Even with a government-controlled reserve of about 45,000 monkeys, researchers in China say they are also dealing with a shortage.

Researchers often collect hundreds of specimens from a single monkey, the tissues of which can be frozen for years and studied for long periods. Scientists say they make the most of each animal, but monkeys infected with COVID-19 cannot go back to living among other healthy animals and must eventually be euthanized.

In January, Shen Weiguo, general manager of Shanghai Technology Venture Capital Group, told local lawmakers that the city’s three big biomedical companies had 2,750 short research coveralls last year, according to a state media report. The deficit is expected to grow 15% annually over the next five years, Shen said.

Hubei Topgene Biotechnology raises monkeys for its own research and for export. The United States was previously its main export destination, but the company currently does not have enough animals to conduct its own experiments, said Yan Shuo, sales manager.

“Now, it’s not even a question of money,” Yan said. “We don’t even have monkeys to sell abroad.”

The United States maintains seven national primate research centers, where animals, when not being investigated, live in colonies with access to the outdoors and enrichment activities. The facilities are affiliated with research universities and funded by the National Institutes of Health. Animal welfare activists have long accused centers of abuse, including separating babies from their mothers.

Matthew R. Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, said he was preparing to raise the monkey shortage with the Biden administration. He said China’s decision to halt exports at the start of the pandemic was “probably a prudent emergency measure,” but suggested that China could restart exports given what is now known about how the virus spreads.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the ban was not targeted at specific species or countries.

Once the international situation improves and the conditions for imports and exports are met, “the ministry said in a statement,” China will actively consider resuming import and export approval and other related work. “

Experts said the United States had to take some responsibility for not having enough investigative monkeys.

Budgets for national primate centers have been flat or falling 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 10 years ago, but did not give it more funding, so it cut back. the size of your colony.

“What we did in several cases was we gave our women contraception,” Van Rompay said. “So fewer babies would be born in the spring.”

In a panel organized by the National Institutes of Health in December 2018, scientists discussed the challenges facing the United States’ primate supply. Back then, there was an awareness that “if China decides to turn off the tap, we are in serious trouble,” said Jeffrey Roberts, associate director of the California National Primate Research Center.

The attendees “agreed that the need to breed cynomolgus macaques in the country is essential and could jeopardize biomedical research in the United States as a whole, if not met,” according to a report from the meeting. “They stressed that it may already be too late to address this need, but it will certainly be too late in a few months.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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