Scientists urged the US government to USA increase investment in laboratory monkey breeding programs, while a smuggling scandal in the Cambodia could worsen the testing animal shortage that plagues the life sciences industry.
Academics carrying out some studies already face delays of up to a year due to the difficulty in obtaining so-called non-human primates (NHPs), which regulators insist they are important to prove the safety of medicines in initial research.
The growing demand for lab monkeys during Covid-19, the ban on exports from China and underfunding of domestic breeding programs in the US have disrupted the HNP supply chain and caused prices to triple, according to industry experts.
Two of the largest suppliers of laboratory monkeys to the pharmaceutical industry, US-listed Charles River and Inotiv, recently warned investors that they expect a halt to US imports from Cambodia, the country’s largest supplier of PNHs.
This comes after the indictment in federal court last month of eight people — including two senior Cambodian government officials — who allegedly participated in a ring that smuggled wild monkeys into the US for research purposes.
A Cambodian official was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, prompting Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to declare the arrest “unjustified”.
A Cambodian official told the Financial Times that the country has not banned exports to the US. But the case has raised industry concerns about dependence on imports at a time when some research programs face year-long delays due to monkey shortages.
“If companies and academic researchers cannot obtain non-human primate research models [macacos] what they need, work stops. you can say goodbye to new vaccines and drugs” said Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an industry group. “It is of critical importance to public health and national security.”
Bailey said Washington should explore public-private partnerships and other investment options to boost domestic creation.
Supplies of the most popular monkey species used by pharmaceutical companies for research, the long-tailed macaques, have been limited for several years due to strong demand by researchers and limited US-based breeding programs.
A 2020 export ban imposed by China — which at the time was the biggest supplier to the U.S. — during the Covid-19 caused the price of lab monkeys to triple between 2019-22, as per research by Evercore IS I.
Evercore estimates that average prices for lab monkeys in 2019-20 were between $4,000 and $7,000. In 2020-21, they increased to $10,000 and in 2021-22 again to between $20,000 and $24,000. Evercore predicts prices will rise again to $30,000 to $35,000 in 2023.
Elizabeth Anderson, an analyst at Evercore, said big pharma companies are generally not price sensitive for PNHs, but in the longer term, high prices and supply disruptions could lead them to invest in their own creation rather than relying on of imports.
Experts say academic researchers and smaller biotech companies are most vulnerable to shortages and rising prices for lab monkeys, which regulators say are important for proving drug safety in early studies.
Scholars can obtain animals from seven national primate research centers, which are breeding facilities in the United States funded by the National Institutes of Health🇧🇷 But the centres, which together have about 20,000 to 25,000 animals, say they don’t have enough animals to meet demand and need more funding, directors at two facilities told the FT.
“We are more than a year behind on many of our studies. Personally, I have a grant that hasn’t been able to get animals for over a year,” said Professor Nancy Haigwood, director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center.
Skip Bohm, associate director of the Tulane National Primate Research Center, said an audit of research requests at the seven US centers showed that 3,000 animals were missing in 2021.
“Over the last decade, we’ve pretty much bridged the gap and put a band-aid on the situation, but if this continues we really fear that some studies will have to stop,” he said.
The National Institutes of Health said there is an ongoing challenge to providing an adequate supply of PNHs for biomedical research due to shortages, but condemned all illegal animal trade.
“Any resolution must be made in accordance with animal welfare policies and procedures in compliance with federal laws, regulations and policies.”
In July, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the long-tailed macaque as “endangered” for the first time, in part because of the growing demand for the species for medical research.
Peta, an animal rights group, said researchers’ reliance on lab monkeys is outdated, as today there are much better human-relevant research methods.
Lisa Jones-Engel, Peta’s senior scientific adviser, said US scientists have never succeeded in creating complex, sensitive monkeys without alarmingly high mortality rates.
“That’s why they are willing to buy animals kidnapped from their habitats in Asia, Africa and South America. We have to prevent monkey experimenters from getting the necessary funds to do so.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves