The race to vaccinate the country is on. People are beginning to receive the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna, a Massachusetts-based startup. It’s the second vaccine to receive emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, closely following the one from Pfizer and BioNTech.
Creating a coronavirus vaccine in less than a year is an astounding scientific achievement. But a global shortage of research animals — particularly research monkeys — could prevent some of world’s latest life-saving vaccines from ever leaving the lab. The COVID-19 vaccine, Ebola and other deadly diseases would have been impossible without animal research.
Prior to testing in humans, scientists first conducted research with rhesus macaque monkeys and mice. Research then proceeded to preliminary human clinical trials to investigate the impact of Pfizer’s vaccine candidate. Rhesus macaques share about 93 percent of their DNA with humans, so they’re ideal for determining how people might respond to a drug. The macaques showed no trace of coronavirus RNA in their lower respiratory tracts after receiving one dose of the vaccine followed by a booster shot, researchers found, indicating that the vaccine was safe and effective.
Mice involved in a concurrent trial demonstrated a robust immune response that endured 28 days following receipt of the vaccine — the total time period for which the response was measured — indicating that the vaccine was effective.
The Moderna vaccine prompted similarly strong immune responses in rhesus macaques. Preclinical trials showed the vaccinated primates developed antibodies capable of neutralizing the virus, thereby preventing dangerous infections, in greater numbers than those that had simply recovered from infection.
Although Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines were only developed last year, they are rooted in decades of research in animals.
Both vaccines use messenger RNA to stimulate an immune response, a technique researchers began developing more than 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania. Immunologist Drew Weissman and molecular biologist Katalin Kariko investigated how RNA might compel the production of specific disease-fighting proteins. In a study involving mice, Weissman and Kariko discovered a method to produce the specific proteins through RNA without side effects like inflammation.
They patented their work, and the technology was eventually licensed to BioNTech and Moderna. Scientists hope to one day use similar vaccines to combat countless other deadly diseases, including cancer.
Other treatments for COVID-19 also have their genesis in animal research. Consider antibody therapies from Regeneron and Eli Lilly, both of which recently gained emergency use authorization from the FDA.
Regeneron employed VelocImmune mice — genetically modified mice capable of imitating a human immune system — to develop its treatment. Researchers isolated antibodies created by both mice and humans who had recovered from the virus and combined the strongest ones to produce what they call an “antibody cocktail.”
Scientists previously used the same technique to develop antibody treatments for Ebola.
Regeneron’s antibody treatment successfully reduced viral loads — a measure of the amount of virus present in a person or animal, which has been correlated to disease severity — in the airways of golden hamsters and rhesus macaques before approval for use in humans.
Eli Lilly’s antibody treatment almost never left the lab due to a global shortage of research animals. Shanghai Junshi Biosciences, Eli Lilly’s partner, spent months gathering enough monkeys to conduct a proper trial. That ultimately delayed production of the therapy.
Amid the pandemic, demand for research animals has increased while supply has dwindled. China previously supplied 60 percent of the United States’ research monkeys, but the COVID-19 outbreak prompted a halt to exports. If not addressed quickly, this shortage will only continue to obstruct medical innovation.
That’s not the only challenge researchers are facing. Some activists allege that employing animal models is inhumane. They’re arguing for the government to curb the practice.
But they’re mistaken. Federal law requires researchers to provide appropriate anesthesia or analgesic drugs for any potentially painful procedures and to limit the number of animals involved in preclinical trials. Veterinarians and animal technicians rigorously oversee the caging, enrichment, exercise, feeding, health and well-being of the animals.
Further, there’s no viable substitute for research in live animal models. Even the most powerful supercomputers fail to replicate or simulate the complexity of living organisms.
Thanks to vaccines developed via animal research, an end to the pandemic is finally in sight. Animal research can deliver the treatments and therapies we’ll need to combat the next public health crisis, too — if we let it.
Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. This op-ed originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
(Feature image credit: Lal Nallath/ iStock/ Getty Images Plus)