The US government is ramping up its investment in captive monkey breeding programs in order to make up for what Nature describes as “an ongoing shortage of these animals, which grew worse in 2020 as scientists tested scores of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments on primates before trials began in people.”
As The Atlantic reports, the rapid increase in demand for monkeys created by the pandemic was made worse when China, which provided 60 percent of the nearly 35,000 monkeys imported to the U.S. in 2019, embargoed all exports after COVID began to spread.
According to a 2018 report from the National Institutes of Health, national primate centers were even then unable to meet future demand and specifically discussed a “strategic monkey reserve” to provide “surge capability for unpredictable disease outbreaks.”
That strategic monkey reserve still has not been created, but a new infusion of federal dollars may help get the plan back on track.
Over the past two years, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has invested about $29 million into new housing, outdoor enclosures and other infrastructure improvements at the US National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs), where the monkeys will be bred. That investment is expected to surpass $36 million before 2022, and the Biden Administration is pushing for $30 million more.
“We have been making investments to bring the levels up and to plan for the future,” says James Anderson, director of the NIH Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives in Bethesda, Maryland. “What happens if [a pandemic] happens again, with another virus in three years? We want to be ready for that.”
According to government data, US scientists used 68,257 non-human primates in their research during 2019. Most of the animals were rhesus or cynomolgus macaques. Scientists hold that macaque monkeys are ideal specimens for researching coronavirus vaccines before they are tested on humans because they share more than 90 percent of our DNA, the New York Times reports. These biological similarities allow researchers to run tests using samples from nasal swabs and lung scans. Outside of the cynomolgus macaques, however, it is almost impossible to find a more effective substitute in which to test Covid-19 vaccines.
In the meantime, the price for a cynomolgus monkey has more than doubled, now over $10,000 per animal, the New York Times reports. Research on Alzheimer’s and AIDS has also been delayed as priority for the animals goes to coronavirus researchers.
The NPRC facility in Beaverton, Oregon, which once housed about 5,000 non-human primates, now has none.
“We are truly out of animals”, director Nancy Haigwood told Nature. “We’re turning away everyone.”
The shortage has led a growing number of American scientists to call on the government to ensure a constant supply of the animals. The planned federal investment will address part of the primate shortage, but it will take time to fix the greater problem.
It could take as much as $50 million to make all the necessary upgrades to the NIH primate breeding program so that it can be more resilient to sharp increases in demand.
“It’s very encouraging to see the Biden administration make an investment in the future of primate research in the US,” Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) in Washington DC, tells Nature. “It’s a smart decision, but it isn’t like flipping a switch — it’s not going to change overnight.”
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