The lastest coronavirus vaccine setback: America doesn't have enough monkeys

Louise Hall
Thursday 10 September 2020 17:20 BST
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The race to find a viable vaccine in the fight against coronavirus in the US has come up against another difficult setback: shortage of monkeys for testing and research.

Primates are currently used in clinical trials to test experimental vaccines before they can move onto human trials to make sure that they are safe and effective.

With a number of vaccine candidates being developed across the country and severe pressure on the government to develop a successful treatment as quickly as possible, the current climate has exacerbated an already existing issue of primate availability.

“Nationally, there is basically a big shortage,” Dr Koen Van Rompay, an infectious-disease scientist at the California National Primate Research Center, told The Atlantic.

Rhesus monkeys are one of the most frequently used species in research according to The National Primate Research Centers. They are said to share about 93 per cent of their genes with humans.

“Their immune systems and immune responses are very similar to what you see in humans and they can give you a very good idea of safety and efficacy in vaccines,” Dr Van Rompay said.

However, as a result of a complete cutoff in exports of primates from China, which shut down its supply chain after the coronavirus pandemic hit, the US is facing a huge shortage. China had previously provided 60 per cent of the US’s nearly 35,000 monkeys, The Atlantic reported.

“We can’t find any rhesus any longer. They’ve completely disappeared,” Mark Lewis, the CEO of Bioqual, a contract research organization that specializes in animal testing told the outlet.

Another obstacle facing primate research is that monkeys infected with Covid-19 have to be kept in Animal Biosafety Level 3 (ABSL 3) labs large enough to accommodate their size, which are limited at research centres and can reportedly cost anywhere from $75 million to $100 million to build.

“The real bottleneck is the access to the ABSL 3,” Deborah Fuller, The Washington National Primate Research Center’s division chief of infectious disease and translational medicine told USA Today. “(Scientists) are ready and their products are ready, but now they’re twirling their thumbs.”

Consequently, teating of prospective coronavirus treatments could be being sidelined because of the ongoing limitations.

Dr Van Rompay told The Atlantic that he receives emails and calls weekly from companies looking to test treatments at the California research center but has to tell them : "I’m sorry, we are not allowed to start your research".

According to Matthew R Bailey, the president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, the US’s reliance on primates from overseas is a strategic and critical issue. 

The inability to access resources for the development of vaccines in the US will inevitably mean the work is outsourced overseas, he told The Atlantic.

“Is the American public okay with that? Do we want treatments and cures to be developed here? Or are we okay with them being developed in other countries?” he asked.

Primate centers and other institutions have urged that they require more funding to expand breeding colonies and build labs in preparation for any other oncoming public health emergencies.

“One thing is for sure this is not the last pandemic that we’re going to see,” Mr Bailey said. “That’s inevitable.”

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