COVID-19 Researchers in the U.S. Face a Monkey Shortage

Ralph Ellis

September 02, 2020

Scientists rushing to develop a coronavirus vaccine are running out of monkeys. That's a big problem since drugs are usually tested on those primates before clinical trials with humans.

"Nationally, there is basically a big shortage," said Koen Van Rompay, an infectious-disease scientist at the California National Primate Research Center, according to The Atlantic.

Besides heightened demand for monkeys, the shortage is caused by a decrease in supply of monkeys from China, which provided 60% of the nearly 35,000 monkeys imported to the United States last year, The Atlantic said. China cut off exports after the coronavirus pandemic started.

The United States doesn't have its own reserve of monkeys, though a 2018 report from the National Institutes of Health recommended one be created to meet future demand.

The California National Primate Research Center is one of seven NIH-funded primate centers in the United States. Van Rompay said he's contacted weekly by companies that want to test coronavirus treatment on monkeys there.

"I have to tell them, ‘I'm sorry, we are not allowed to start your research,'" he said.

The NIH decides which studies can use the primate centers under a public-private partnership created in April called the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines.

Monkeys are important for coronavirus vaccine experiments because their immune systems are very similar to humans, meaning they're a good model for testing agents that boost a vaccine's effectiveness, said JoAnne Flynn, a vaccine researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, according to the Atlantic.

One example of monkey's effectiveness came in May when the NIH announced that a coronavirus vaccine being developed by Oxford University in England had provided protection against the virus when given to rhesus macaque monkeys at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana.

Based on the research, testing on human candidates began in the United Kingdom, the NIH said.

The Atlantic said some scientists are dealing with the monkey shortage by sharing monkeys as control groups for experiments in different labs.

It's not known when China will start exporting monkeys again, but the pandemic and the United States' trade war with China makes the possibility seem further away, The Atlantic said.


The Atlantic: "America Is Running Low on a Crucial Resource for COVID-19 Vaccine"

NIH. "Nonhuman Primate Evaluation and Analysis Part 1: Analysis of Future Demand and Supply"


WebMD. "Vaccine Protects Monkeys Against COVID-19"