Charles River is latest monkey supplier named in wild-caught macaque smuggling case
BETHESDA, Maryland––Laboratory monkey users and investors in the laboratory monkey business are shedding crocodile tears to mass media about an alleged monkey shortage jeopardizing public health by delaying approval of new drugs and medical procedures.
No less an authority than the National Institutes of Health, the major U.S. funder of biomedical research, has hinted that the claims may be little more than recycled monkey chow.
Crocs & laboratories consume monkeys
Crocodiles consume monkeys, when the crocs can catch them, and so does biomedical research, having used 71,921 monkeys in the U.S. alone in 2021, according to USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service data compiled in compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act.
33,000 of the monkeys used in U.S. biomedical research in 2021 were imported, including 19,269 long-tailed macaques from Cambodia. About 14,000 of the Cambodian macaques were wild-caught, but were misidentified by the exporters as captive-bred, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
This put the importers in violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and requirements that non-human primates used in U.S. laboratories not have been exposed to diseases occurring in the wild that might potentially jeopardize the health of humans.
Subpoena in smuggling case
One of the biggest monkey importers and vendors to researchers, Charles River Laboratories of Wilmington, Massachusetts, on February 22, 2023 “disclosed that it had received a subpoena related to shipments of monkeys from Cambodia and had voluntarily suspended future shipments until it could develop a new protocol that has the U.S. government’s blessing,” reported Carolyn Y. Johnson and Daniel Gilbert of the Washington Post.
The subpoena, from the U.S. Department of Justice, followed the November 16, 2022 eight-count indictment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida of two Cambodian government officials, primate supply company founder James Man Sang Lau, 64, and five of his employees.
All seven were charged with “smuggling and conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act,” according to a Department of Justice media release.
The Lacey Act of 1900, the oldest U.S. wildlife protection law still on the books, prohibits interstate traffic in illegally obtained wildlife or wildlife parts.
FDA Modernization Act now in effect
Weeping and wailing from laboratory monkey users began almost immediately.
But, as Jason J. Han reported for PubMed, published by the National Library of Health on behalf of the National Institutes of Health, “On December 29, 2022, President [Joe] Biden signed into law the FDA Modernization Act 2.0.
“The bill essentially refutes the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938,” Han explained, “which mandated animal testing for every new drug development protocol.
“While for the past century,” Han elaborated, “the mandate was intended to ensure certain quality and safety standards for drugs and medical devices, recent advancements in science have begun to offer increasingly viable alternatives to animal testing.
“For certain areas such as organ replacement therapies,” Han cautioned, “non-animal testing may not prove to be an adequate alternative in the foreseeable future.”
Reuters worries about the profits
The largest use of animals in biomedical research, however, including use of monkeys, is in drug development.
Han and the NIH did not appear to be especially worried that either the FDA Modernization Act 2.0 or busting major monkey suppliers might jeopardize biomedical research progress in other than the “certain areas” Han mentioned.
But the Reuters news service seemed very worried by the February 22, 2023 Charles River Laboratories suspension of monkey imports from Cambodia.
“Shares of the company were down 12.4%,” Reuters reported. “Charles River expects constraints on the supply of monkeys to reduce its consolidated revenue growth forecast by about 200 to 400 basis points this year. The company on Wednesday forecast revenue growth of 1.5% to 4.5% for 2023.
“Non-human primates are essential in animal models in biomedical research,” Reuters then intoned, apparently oblivious to the passage of the FDA Modernization Act 2.0.
Washington Post blames COVID-19 for monkey crisis
“The disruptions come on top of an already strained supply of laboratory monkeys in the United States,” fretted Carolyn Y. Johnson and Daniel Gilbert of the Washington Post.
Circa 2015 there was more visible concern in the laboratory industry about how to retire a perceived surplus of non-human primates than about an impending monkey shortage.
China stopped monkey exports
But in 2018, remembered Johnson and Gilbert, “A National Institutes of Health study predicted that future demand for nonhuman primates was likely to outstrip supply.
“Then the coronavirus pandemic landed and demand soared, as monkeys were needed to test coronavirus vaccines and therapeutics,” Johnson and Gilbert recalled.
“At the same time, China stopped exporting monkeys, so U.S. suppliers had to scramble to find new sources, shifting much of their business to Cambodia.”
Inotiv named earlier
But, like Reuters, the Washington Post team appeared to be more concerned about the money associated with the monkey business than the medicine.
“Research analysts at investment bank Evercore estimate that, given the supply decrease, Charles River will raise its prices on nonhuman primates this year to $33,000 each, up from $22,000 last year and just $2,500 in 2019,” Johnson and Gilbert reported.
“Charles River was just the latest company to come under scrutiny in the Justice Department investigation,” Johnson and Gilbert noted. “In June 2021, two companies that later became subsidiaries of Inotiv received subpoenas regarding their primate imports, following up on grand jury subpoenas each had received in 2019, according to a securities filing. Inotiv has said its main supplier of nonhuman primates was criminally charged in November with illegally importing the animals from Cambodia.”
Yes, you probably read all about that first right here.
Weeping all the way to the bank
“Inotiv brought in $140 million from selling Cambodian monkeys in 2022, a quarter of its revenue, and the company’s stock lost half of its value the day after the Justice Department announced the indictments,” Johnson and Gilbert said.
Crocodiles are weeping all the way to the bank.
The Department of Justice subpoena to Charles River Laboratories came two weeks after Claire Colley of The Guardian on January 8, 2023 revealed that “U.S. authorities are continuing to allow imports of long-tailed macaques from Cambodia, despite revelations that deadly pathogenic agents, including one deemed to be a bioterrorism risk, are entering the country with primates,” as well as the “recent charges of illegal trafficking of wild macaques falsely labeled as captive-bred in Cambodia.”
“Threat to public health”
Said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals senior science advisor Lisa Jones-Engel, formerly a primatologist with the University of Washington in Seattle, “The monkey trafficking trade is a substantive threat to public health. It’s only a matter of time before a recognized or novel pathogen sparks a new pandemic.”
Wrote Colley, “Sources confirm that 720 long-tailed macaques were transported on a Maleth-Aero flight leaving Cambodia on December 28, 2022, arriving at Dulles International Airport, Washington D.C., a day later. About 360 primates were then transported by road to Charles River Laboratories [facility] in Houston.
“It is unclear where the remaining 360 macaques were transported to,” Colley acknowledged.
Deaths in quarantine soar
Meanwhile, summarized Colley, “Documents obtained by PETA showed highly pathogenic agents entered the U.S. with monkeys imported from Asia between 2018 and 2021, including at least six cases of Burkholderia pseudomallei in macaques from Cambodia.
Burkholderia pseudomallei, Colley explained, “causes melioidosis, a rare but fatal disease in humans,” which “was, for the first time ever, detected in soil and water in Mississippi in 2022.”
Continued Colley, “Documents obtained by PETA reveal that primates who died” during a mandatory 31-day quarantine after entering the U.S. “rose from 29 in 2017 to 125 in 2021, and those that were ill in quarantine but recovered increased from five in 2017 to 119 in 2021.”
Said Jones-Engel, “Since 2019, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has overseen the import of nearly 100,000 long-tailed macaques. The agency’s own documents make clear that many monkeys arrived and were moved throughout the U.S. with pathogens in their bodies.”
U.S. laboratory animal use up 6%
The imported monkey business is only one of the most visible aspects of laboratory animal use.
“Animal testing in the U.S. increased by 6% in 2021, with a total of 712,683 animals [of species tracked under the Animal Welfare Act] used in experiments,” announced Monica Engebretson, Cruelty Free International head of public affairs for North America, on February 24, 2023.
“This includes 12,595 cats, 71,921 monkeys, and 44,847 dogs,” Engebretson said.
“Some of this increase could be attributed to lowered laboratory activity in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Engebretson said, contradicting the Washington Post belief that COVID-19 had increased laboratory animal use, especially of monkeys.
“Rising public demand for humane science”
“However,” Engebretson continued, “we had still hoped to see an overall decrease in animal use, amidst rising public demand for humane science and ongoing progress being made in the development of non-animal testing methods.
“The figures also reveal,” Engebretson observed, “that 70,161 animals (10% of those tested on in the U.S. in 2021) were used in ‘Category E’ experiments in which no relief is provided for animals experiencing pain or distress. The most frequent victims of these painful experiments are hamsters and guinea pigs, but in 2021, 2,583 rabbits, 1,621 monkeys and 360 dogs were also subjected to ‘Category E’ tests.
USDA makes data harder to extract
“The USDA figures do not include mice, rats, fish or birds,” Engebretson explained, “despite these animals being the most commonly used animals in experiments. As a result, the true number of animals suffering in U.S. laboratories is expected to be far higher. We estimate the number to be at least 14 million.”
“The USDA has recently changed the way it publicly provides animal use data,” Engebretson lamented, “so that it is no longer easy to compare pain categories and animal use across states, or to compare the data with past years.
“The USDA has not provided an explanation for this new and more opaque system of providing this public information, despite our repeated requests,” Engebretson said.