Vaccines have proven effective against them. However, Brazil’s P.1 variant, which has been detected in many U.S. states, is particularly concerning, since it can re-infect people who have already had other versions of the coronavirus.
Researchers are racing to develop new coronavirus vaccines and treatments, but many of them are running into a problem — a shortage of monkeys. Unless the government acts to preserve our scientists’ access to nonhuman primates, medical advancement could grind to a halt.
Monkeys are essential for biomedical research. They’re the most similar nonhuman models to human research subjects. Rhesus macaques, the species most commonly engaged in medical research, share roughly 93% of their DNA with humans. They’re also physiologically and anatomically similar to humans.
In the case of COVID-19, scientists were able to glean how the coronavirus attacked the lungs and respiratory system by studying its expression in monkeys. It’s no wonder the vaccines Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson developed all have their genesis in research in nonhuman primates.
Supercomputers and organs-on-a-chip may be effective adjuncts to research with nonhuman primates and other animal models, but they can’t replicate all the complexities inherent in a living organism.
But the pandemic has made nonhuman primates a scarce resource. At the beginning of the outbreak, China, the world’s top source of research monkeys, halted exports. That put many U.S. labs in a difficult spot. China provided more than 60% of the nearly 34,000 nonhuman primates that entered the United States in 2019.
China probably won’t resume exports anytime soon, since its own scientists now face a shortfall, too. Just a few labs in Shanghai alone need nearly 3,000 more monkeys. Experts predict the Chinese shortage will grow 15% a year over the next five years.
The main message propagated by animal rights activists affiliated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Rise for Animals, Stop Animal Exploitation Now! and similar groups is that nonhuman primates are not essential for the development of COVID-19 vaccines. Heeding their propaganda could spell disaster for the health and safety of Americans — not to mention our world leadership in biomedical research and development.
The U.S. government has a few options for addressing the research monkey shortage. It could work with other countries to increase the supply. The promise of more collaboration with U.S. scientists could prompt other countries to export more of them to the United States.
Federal officials could also pressure airlines to transport more monkeys from abroad. Most have bowed to pressure from animal rights groups and refuse to transport research animals.
The airlines’ policy makes little sense. Until December 2020, U.S. airlines were more than willing to permit emotional support turkeys or miniature horses on board. Some airlines still allow dogs, cats and birds in the cabin. Why discriminate against the carriage of animals involved in life-saving research? Why not deliver the resources that researchers need to help us all?
Correcting widespread misinformation about animal research would also help. PETA and other animal activists have been trying to convince the public that research with monkeys is not just useless but inhumane and unethical. Over the years, their campaigns have resulted in increased regulatory and legislative scrutiny as well as reduced funding for nonhuman primate research facilities.
One simple solution may be to boost funding for primate research in America, including at our National Primate Research Centers. Tens of millions of additional dollars represents a rounding error in the federal budget. But that investment would ensure U.S. scientists can quickly and independently respond to future health crises.
The mRNA technology employed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech and the viral vector technology used by Johnson & Johnson show enormous potential against other diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and future coronaviruses. Both types of vaccine technology were developed through research with nonhuman primates. Repurposing these vaccines for other diseases will inevitably require additional research in nonhuman primates.
The world looks to the United States as a leader in medical innovation. If our scientists are to continue producing lifesaving therapies as they have for the currently identified COVID-19 variants and other serious diseases, America will need to address our shortage of research monkeys.
Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research. This op-ed originally appeared in The Detroit News.
(Feature image credit: Robbie Ross / iStock / Getty Images Plus)