Researchers scrape the bottom of the barrel
DAVIS, California––Will a purported national monkey shortage force COVID-19 researchers to develop new non-animal testing methods?
Or is the alleged monkey shortage really just a ploy by the seven National Primate Research Centers to perpetuate their own existence, taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to win more federal funding?
Reported Sarah Zhang, science writer for The Atlantic, on August 31, 2020, “In the past seven months, more than 100 COVID-19 vaccines, therapies, and drugs have been pushed into development. But for any of these treatments to make it to humans, they usually have to face another animal first: a monkey. And here, scientists in the United States say they are facing a bottleneck. There just aren’t enough monkeys to go around.”
Less than a year ago labs worried about keeping too many monkeys
Summarized Zheng, “First, COVID-19 has created extraordinary demand for monkeys. Second, this coincided with a massive drop in supply from China, which provided 60% of the nearly 35,000 monkeys imported to the U.S. last year and which shut off exports after COVID-19 hit. And third, these pandemic-related events are exacerbating preexisting monkey shortfalls.”
Yet as recently as December 2019, a month before COVID-19 was identified in China, scientists around the U.S. were fretting about how––and where––to retire monkeys who were deemed no longer needed for research use, or no longer suitable for most uses because of the diseases and procedures to which they had already been exposed.
110,000 monkeys already in U.S. labs
Explained Science news editor David Grimm, “More than 110,000 monkeys are in U.S. research facilities, and retiring even a fraction is a challenge. Labs often can’t afford it or can’t find a sanctuary they trust or that has space.”
Grimm noted the concern of “some primate researchers” that “even talking about retirement could eventually lead to all monkeys disappearing from biomedical studies, as happened with chimpanzees,” who have not been used in new studies funded by the National Institutes of Health since 2015.
Meanwhile, Grimm acknowledged, “According to a National Institutes of Health report released in 2018, demand for research monkeys will continue to rise; the number used in experiments reached a record high [75,825] in 2017, even though the total number held in U.S. labs has declined slightly over the past decade. Higher demand,” Grimm speculated, “could cause a space crunch at biomedical facilities and expand the pool of older monkeys, making the question of retirement more urgent.”
No “strategic monkey reserve”
Zheng also cited the 2018 National Institutes of Health report, which “specifically discussed a ‘strategic monkey reserve’ to provide ‘surge capability for unpredictable disease outbreaks.’
However, Zheng wrote, “The strategic monkey reserve was never created.”
Even if it had been, Zheng continued, and even if monkeys were today in abundance among laboratory suppliers, “Monkeys infected with COVID-19 have to be kept in Animal Biosafety Level 3 labs, which have specific design and ventilation requirements to prevent the spread of pathogens. The U.S. has a limited number of ABSL-3 labs,” meaning that the National Primate Research Centers or other monkey-keeping institutions would need to be able to make substantial capital investments in facilities to be able to proceed with the experiments supposedly now delayed by lack of monkeys.
Going straight to human trials
The National Primate Research Centers held 14,711 monkeys as of 2015, the last year for which population data is accessible. Academic institutions held 38,550; commercial laboratories held 38,550; and other federally funded laboratories had 8,693.
“As COVID-19 vaccine development has moved forward at an unprecedented pace,” Zheng wrote, “some pharmaceutical companies have started human trials before monkey studies have concluded. And with monkeys so hard to come by, others are wondering if certain studies can be skipped altogether.”
“Primates are not always the best animal model”
One advantage for researchers of using monkeys in COVID-19 studies, Zheng explained, is that “Monkeys can be challenged—that is, deliberately infected with COVID-19 after being given an experimental vaccine. Researchers can then follow the animals’ exact progression of disease or lack thereof, tracking how quickly antibody levels shoot up or whether a vaccine reduces how long the monkey sheds the virus. These details are harder to get in human trials,” Zheng said, “because people are naturally exposed to COVID-19 and aren’t being monitored every day. Although some researchers have proposed human challenge trials for COVID-19, the idea is controversial and none have begun.”
Zheng acknowledged, however, that “Primates are not always the best animal model for every aspect of the disease. Most monkeys, including rhesus macaques and cynomolgus macaques, which are the two most widely used species, get only mildly sick from COVID-19.
“To study severe illness,” Zheng continued, “scientists are turning to animals such as hamsters. COVID-19-infected hamsters develop lethargy, rapid breathing, and weight loss of up to 11%.
And then Zheng reached the bottom line: money.
“Breeding more monkeys in the U.S. will take years, along with sustained funding,” Zheng wrote. “The country has a limited number of breeding facilities, including the NIH-funded primate centers,” while “Monkeys set aside for breeding can’t be used for research.”
“Meanwhile,” Zheng said, in terms reminiscent of how lobbyists for U.S. laboratories bring federal money into the unending arms race, “China has invested in large monkey-breeding facilities and is a major supplier for the rest of the world.”
“The biopharmaceutical industry in the U.S., in particular, relies heavily on macaques bred in China,” Zheng warned. “The ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China had already made importing monkeys more expensive. Then, when the [COVID-19] pandemic hit earlier this year, China stopped exporting them entirely.
“Industry experts speculate,” Zheng said, “that China, whose scientists are also racing to find COVID-19 treatments, is interested in keeping the animals for its own studies.”
Zheng concluded by noting that, “The current monkey shortage is forcing scientists to think creatively about how to reduce the number of animals needed for research.”
Jeffrey Roberts, associate director of primate services at the California National Primate Research Center on the University of California at Davis campus, explained to Zheng how “The different NIH-funded centers are trying to use one group of animals as controls in experiments across different labs,” by harmonizing “to make sure that small changes from lab to lab don’t affect the results.
Macaque price up 10,000% since 2003
“I’ve been involved in nonhuman-primate research for 37 years,” Roberts told Zheng, “and I’ve never, ever seen this degree of coordination between different research institutes.”
Probably because always before, monkeys were cheap, selling for as little as $100 apiece in 2003. Now monkeys for lab use sell for upward of $10,000 each.
Despite the soaring price of a monkey life, research use of monkeys has increased by 22% since 2015 and 6% since 2008, according to USDA data, even as use of cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs has declined.
Use of rats, mice, and birds is not tracked by the USDA, since these species are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act definition of “animal.” Thus there is no official reckoning of the research toll on species believed to account for more than 95% of all laboratory animal use.
More grants for monkey research
Wrote Grimm, “Nearly two-thirds of the nonhuman primates the National Institutes of Health supports are rhesus macaques, with cynomolgus macaques (15%), baboons (6%), and a dozen other monkey species making up the remainder.
The National Institutes of Health “gave 249 grants in 2017 that supported nonhuman primate research,” Grimm reported, “up from 171 in 2013. And the agency expects the number of nonhuman primates it supports to continue to grow in coming years.”
Grimm did not mention use of the common marmoset, described by his Science colleague Kelly Servick in October 2018 as “A hand-size monkey called Callithrix jacchus.”
According Serveck, common marmosets have “been genetically engineered to make their brains easier to image and to serve as models for neurological disorders such as autism and Parkinson’s disease.”
University of California, San Diego neuroscientist Cory Miller told Serveck, she wrote, “that the number of U.S. marmoset research colonies jumped from eight in 2009 to 27” as of nine years later, “totaling 1,900 marmosets across about 40 principal investigators.”
Serveck, like Zheng discussing macaques, outlined an “arms race” in marmoset breeding, but in this case pitting U.S. laboratories against the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan.
“Japanese research got a leg up in 2014 with a 40 billion yen ($350 million) government initiative to map the marmoset brain,” Serveck said. “But several U.S. labs now have transgenic primates under development,” she added, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 research has become a bonanza for companies with monkeys to sell, apparently regardless of their history.
Reported Sam Ogozalek of the Island Packet on July 19, 2020, “Alpha Genesis Inc., a primate research company in northern Beaufort County,” in South Carolina, “won a $4.6 million contract in June 2020 from the National Institutes of Health for ‘maintenance’ of pathogen-free macaque monkey breeding colonies, according to procurement data released by the federal Pandemic Response Accountability Committee.”
Noted Ogozalek, “Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, an Ohio-based organization, lodged a seven-page complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture after obtaining incident reports that Alpha Genesis sent to National Institutes of Health following at least 11 monkey deaths in 2019 and 2018.
This was after, Ogozalek continued, “The USDA in 2017 levied a $12,600 fine against Alpha Genesis for [Animal Welfare Act] violations including monkey escapes and an incident where a monkey was attacked and died after being placed in the wrong social group enclosure.”
In further incidents, Ogozalek summarized, “A monkey suffered from asphyxiation on January 15, 2018, after grabbing part of a sunshade outside an enclosure and becoming wrapped in it. It is unclear if the monkey died. Two sunshades were later removed from the property, according to one report.
“On January 26, 2018, a monkey was discovered dead in an outdoor area of an enclosure,” after being left outside, apart from his social group, on a cold night.
“A technician was fired, supervisors were given written warnings, and a site director was suspended for a week, records show,” Ogozalek continued.
But on March 16, 2018, Ogozalek wrote, “two groups of monkeys violently fought after ‘locks and/or bolts’ were not properly secured in an enclosure, according to a report. Seven monkeys died from their injuries. A site director was fired and a supervisor was disciplined in response to the incident, records attached to the complaint show.”
And still more
For about 18 months thereafter, Alpha Genesis avoided Animal Welfare Act violations. However, Ogozolak resumed, “The company told the National Institutes of Health that on August 10, 2019, two monkeys were found dead and one was found dehydrated but alive. Another monkey died on August 14, 2019. An internal investigation revealed those monkeys’ water supply wasn’t functioning properly, according to an Alpha Genesis incident report attached to SAEN’s complaint. A veterinary technician and supervisor were fired following the deaths. Another supervisor and manager were suspended for two weeks without pay.”
Despite these repeated failings of procedure, Ogozalek learned, Alpha Genesis “is in good standing with the National Institutes of Health Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare,” having “self-reported the incidents and properly managed them under the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.”
But more big contracts
Finished Ogozalek, “Aside from the $4.6 million contract, Alpha Genesis has won four other National Institutes of Health contracts as part of the agency’s coronavirus response, Pandemic Response Accountability Committee data show. Those four awards total at least $556,000. At least four of the five contracts are for the housing, care and transport of primates, the National Institutes of Health said.”
Even before the incidents Ogozalek described, Alpha Genesis had a long history of Animal Welfare Act violations, some of them detailed in the November 22, 2015 ANIMALS 24-7 exposé Lab chimp retirement upstages steep rise in monkey use.
Before becoming Alpha Genesis, the company was called Labs of Virginia Inc.
Labs of Virginia Inc. on August 18, 2004 pleaded guilty to a felony count of submitting false records to U.S. government agencies pertaining to a shipment of 220 monkeys purchased from Indonesian animal dealer Agus Darmawan in 1997.
The case began in 1996, when Labs of Virginia bought a breeding colony of 1,312 macaques from Indonesian Aquatics Export CV, doing business as Inquatex.
Shirley McGreal blew the whistle
In compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Indonesian law forbade the export of the macaques if they were wild-caught, and U.S. law forbade importing them if wild-caught.
Nonetheless, at least 327 of the 846 macaques who arrived at O’Hare Airport between mid-February and mid-May 1997 as part of the transaction were eventually found to have been captured from the wild.
Alerted to the dealings before all of the macaques were flown to the U.S., International Primate Protection League founder Shirley McGreal pursued criminal indictments against Labs of Virginia executives for five years. Winning the eventual corporate guilty pleas took two more years.
Matthew Block firm cashes in too
Earlier, in April 2020, the Miami-based company World Wide Primates was awarded a $1,840,000 contract to supply monkeys to the National Institutes of Health as an “emergency acquisition” for COVID-19 research use.
World Wide Primates founder Matthew Block was the central figure in the “Bangkok Six” case, perhaps the most infamous of the many primate trafficking cases exposed by the International Primate Protection League, founded by McGreal in 1973.
The “Bangkok Six” case broke when six baby orangutans were seized from smugglers in March 1990 at the Bangkok airport. Packed in a crate marked “Birds,” several of them upside down, the baby orangutans were en route from Indonesia to Moscow by way of Serbia, in a deal arranged by Block.
Block eventually drew 13 months in prison for related offenses. Block later moved to Israel, but returned to the U.S.
Block in January 2018 pleaded guilty in federal court to mailing envelopes containing suspicious white powder and a threatening letter to the home of a World Wide Primates employee and to his recently deceased mother’s house, in an attempt to frame animal rights activists.
“Block accepted five years of probation and agreed to pay $14,872 for the cost of the police investigation,” David Ovalle of the Miami Herald reported.