Mark Lewis was dying to find monkeys. Millions of lives around the world were at stake.
Mr. Lewis, the managing director of Bioqual, was responsible for providing laboratory monkeys to pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson that the animals needed to develop their Covid-19 vaccines. But when the coronavirus spread in the United States last year, there were few of the specially bred monkeys in the world.
About a dozen companies unable to provide scientists with monkeys, which can cost more than $ 10,000 each, searched for laboratory animals at the height of the pandemic.
"We lost jobs because we couldn't deliver the animals on time," said Lewis.
The world needs monkeys whose DNA is very similar to that of humans to develop Covid-19 vaccines. However, a global shortage stemming from unexpected demand due to the pandemic has been exacerbated by a recent ban on the sale of wild animals from China, the leading supplier of laboratory animals.
The recent shortage has rekindled discussion of creating a strategic monkey reserve in the United States, an emergency supply similar to that maintained by the government for oil and grain.
As new variants of the coronavirus threaten to obsolete the current amount of vaccines, scientists are looking for new monkey sources and the US is rethinking its reliance on China, a rival with its own biotech ambitions.
The pandemic has underscored the extent to which China controls the supply of life-saving items, including masks and drugs, that the United States needs in a crisis.
American scientists searched private and government-funded facilities in Southeast Asia and Mauritius, a tiny island nation off Southeast Africa, for populations of their preferred test subjects, rhesus monkeys and cynomolgus monkeys, also known as long-tailed macaques.
But no country can make amends for what China delivered before. Before the pandemic, China supplied over 60 percent of the 33,818 primates, mostly cynomolgus macaques, imported to the United States in 2019, according to analyst estimates based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The United States has seven primate centers with 25,000 laboratory monkeys – mostly pink-faced rhesus monkeys. Around 600 to 800 of these animals have had coronavirus research since the pandemic began.
Scientists say monkeys are ideal samples for coronavirus vaccine research before testing in humans. The primates share more than 90 percent of our DNA. Because of their similar biology, they can be tested with nasal swabs and their lungs scanned. Scientists say finding a replacement for testing Covid-19 vaccines is nearly impossible, despite drugs like dexamethasone, the steroid used to treat President Donald J. Trump, have been tested in hamsters.
The United States once relied on India to supply rhesus monkeys. In 1978 India stopped exporting after the Indian press reported that the monkeys were being used for military tests in the US. Pharmaceutical companies were looking for an alternative.
Eventually they landed on China.
The pandemic upset the decades-long relationship between American scientists and Chinese suppliers.
"When the Chinese market closed, everyone just had to go to a smaller number of available animals," said Lewis.
Feb. 23, 2021, 6:34 p.m. ET
For years, several airlines, including the major American airlines, have also refused to transport animals for use in medical research because animal rights activists oppose it.
Meanwhile, the price of a cynomolgus monkey has more than doubled year over year to well over $ 10,000, Lewis said. Scientists researching cures for other diseases, including Alzheimer's and AIDS, say their work has been delayed as coronavirus researchers give priority to the animals.
The shortage has led more and more American scientists to urge the government to ensure constant care for the animals.
Skip Bohm, associate director and senior veterinarian at the Tulane National Primate Research Center outside of New Orleans, The discussion about a strategic monkey sanctuary began about 10 years ago under the directors of the national primate research centers. However, due to the time and money invested in setting up a breeding program, a supply was never created.
"Our idea was similar to the strategic oil reserve, as there is a lot of fuel somewhere that is only tapped in an emergency," said Professor Bohm.
However, when new variants of the virus are discovered that may resume the race for a vaccine, scientists say the government must take immediate action on the supply.
"The strategic monkey reserve is exactly what we needed to deal with Covid, and we just didn't have it," said Keith Reeves, principal researcher at the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School.
However, a robust strategic reserve may still not be able to meet the skyrocketing demand for laboratory animals, researchers in China have learned. Even with a government-controlled stock of around 45,000 monkeys, researchers in China say they are struggling with a shortage.
Researchers often collect hundreds of samples from a single monkey whose tissues can be frozen for years and examined over long periods of time. Scientists say they make the most of every animal, but monkeys infected with Covid-19 cannot be returned to live among other healthy animals and will eventually have to be euthanized.
In January, Shen Weiguo, general manager of Shanghai Technology Venture Capital Group, told local lawmakers that three large biomedical companies in the city were nearly 2,750 research monkeys, according to a report in the state news media last year. The deficit is set to grow 15 percent annually for the next five years, Shen said.
Hubei Topgene Biotechnology breeds monkeys for its own research and for export. The US used to be the top export destination, but the company currently doesn't have enough animals to conduct its own experiments, said Yan Shuo, a sales manager.
"Now it's not even about money," said Yan. "We don't even have monkeys to sell abroad."
The United States has seven national primate research centers where the animals, when unexplored, live in colonies with access to nature and enrichment activities. The facilities are affiliated with research universities and funded by the National Institutes of Health. Animal rights activists have long accused the 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 increase the monkey shortage in the Biden administration. He said China's decision to stop exports at the start of the pandemic was "likely a prudent emergency," but suggested that China could resume exports now that it is known how the virus is spreading.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the ban is not targeted at specific species or countries.
"As soon as the international situation improves and the conditions for imports and exports are met, the Ministry will issue a declaration actively considering resuming import and export permits and other related work.
Experts said the United States had some responsibility for not having enough research monkeys.
Budgets in the national primate centers have either remained flat or have been 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 grant it an increase in funding, so it instead downsized its colony.
"What we did on a number of occasions was give birth controls to our women," said Dr. Van Rompay. "So fewer babies would be born in spring."
At a panel organized by the National Institutes of Health in December 2018, scientists discussed the challenges facing American primate care. There was an awareness at the time that "if China chooses to turn the cone off, we will be in big trouble," said Jeffrey Roberts, assistant director of the California National Primate Research Center.
Participants "agreed that the need to breed cynomolgus macaques domestically is essential and, if not met, could jeopardize biomedical research in the United States as a whole," a report from the meeting said. "They stressed that it may be too late to meet these needs, but it will certainly be too late within a few months."
Amber Wang and Elsie Chen contributed to the research.