US researchers frantically trying to trial vital Covid-19 vaccines face a monkey shortage as China is reportedly hoarding the animals for testing.
Scientists in the US are coming up against a critical shortage in the primates as the controversial practice of testing medicines takes another twist.
Koen Van Rompay, an infection disease scientist at the California National Primate research centre, told The Atlantic: “Nationally, there is basically a big shortage.”
Rhesus monkeys are most widely used in research, according to The National Primate Research Centre.
And the drop in monkey numbers is being partly blamed on a massive demand for the animals, coupled with a drop in supply from China.
China provided 60% of the 35,000 monkeys imported into the US last year before it shut off exports during the pandemic.
Since the outbreak for coronavirus, China, which is a major supplier to the rest of the world, has stopped exporting them entirely.
And industry experts speculate that China, whose scientists are also racing to find Covid-19 treatments, has been keeping the animals for its own studies.
Matthew Bailey, the president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, told the magazine: “I’m not seeing any nonhuman primates moving out of China.”
Scientists face a shortage in rhesus monkeys, which are the most common in primate testing.
Mark Lewis, the CEO of contract research firm Bioqual, told The Atlantic: “We can’t find any rhesus any longer. They’ve completely disappeared.”
To further complicate it, monkeys who are infected with Covid-19 are required to quarantine in special labs – and the US has a limited number of those too.
Van Rompay said he is constantly having to turn down new treatments from companies wanting to test their remedies.
He said: “I have to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we are not allowed to start your research.“
Monkeys account for about 0.5% of the animals used in US biomedical research, but they typically come into play in the key last step before human clinical trials, according to the Atlantic.
As Covid-19 vaccine development has moved forward at an unprecedented pace some pharmaceutical companies have started human trials before monkey studies have concluded, The Atlantic reported.