Shortage of monkeys slows testing of coronavirus vaccine

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Rhesus macaque monkey

In America there is a shortage of rhesus macaque monkeys for animal testing purposes. There was a shortage years before the coronavirus pandemic but now US research centres are saying that there are not enough to go around and there is huge pressure on developing a vaccine for the virus as quickly as possible.

Testing of rhesus macaque monkeys is usually the last stage before researchers test on humans. There are calls, however, to test on people under these circumstances but that, of course, is controversial.

Rhesus macaque monkey

Rhesus macaque monkey. Photo: Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography.co.uk on Wikipedia.

A spokesperson for the California National Primate Research Centre told The Atlantic magazine, “We can’t find any rhesus any longer. They’ve completely disappeared”.

Back in 2018 the National Institutes Of Health analysed the situation and decided that there were shortages at several research centres. Demand for the monkeys has been rising but breeding them takes time.

Alternatively, they are imported from China where they have larger breeding programmes and less regulation. However, some airlines are unwilling to import monkeys from China and the authorities in China decided to stop exporting monkeys after the commencement of the coronavirus pandemic.

This exacerbated the shortfall in the US and the National Institutes Of Health had to decide which studies were allowed to proceed and those which weren’t. They receive calls from companies hoping to conduct a test but they have to refuse them.

The immune systems of rhesus macaque monkeys are very similar to those of humans which allows the vaccine testing to be accurate. Sometimes they do “challenge” trials which means that they administer the vaccine and then give them the disease to see whether it works.

Testing on infant rhesus macaque monkeys is a way of testing the effect of the vaccine on infant humans. With respect to severe infections rhesus macaques are not as useful because they deal with the infection more efficiently and the symptoms are mild. For acute infections hamsters are better test animals and testing facilities should reserve monkey test for the potentially best vaccines.

Comment: like a lot of people, I am totally against animal testing of all kinds. I know that my opinion would negatively impact human health and welfare but I still believe it. I am with PETA on this one: that animals are not there for humans to abuse and use it anyway shape or form. This is certainly an instance when vaccine trials could take place on humans. My reading of the current situation is that this is happening in fact but perhaps after monkey trials. I just think that under these extreme circumstances it is a good opportunity to jump to human trials and miss out testing on rhesus macaque monkeys. It might set a good example for the future.

A lot of people believe that animal testing is not only cruel but inefficient because often the effect of a disease on animals is different to that on people. And nowadays there are alternatives. You can test on artificially created tissue and use machines and algorithms. You don’t need an actual animal to suffer any more. More work needs to be done on developing artificial means of testing medicines. The trouble is that this costs money and the testing facilities are obviously profitable businesses. They do not want to undermine their profits and increase overheads. Animals are often euthanised after tests. Primates can be kept in captivity for the rest of their lives. It is unkind.

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