US faces lab monkey shortage amid Cambodia smuggling scandal

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Scientists have urged the US government to increase investment in lab monkey breeding programmes as a smuggling scandal in Cambodia risks worsening a shortage of test animals that is hurting the life sciences sector.

Academics pursuing some studies already face delays of up to a year due to the difficulty in sourcing so called non-human primates, which regulators insist are important to prove the safety of drugs in early research.

Surging demand for lab monkeys during Covid-19, a ban on exports from China and underfunding of domestic breeding programmes in the US have disrupted the NHP supply chain and caused prices to triple, according to industry experts.

Two of the largest suppliers of lab monkeys to the pharmaceutical industry, US-listed Charles River and Inotiv, recently warned investors they expect disruption to US imports from Cambodia, the nation’s largest supplier of NHPs.

It follows the indictment by Federal prosecutors last month of eight people — including two senior Cambodian government officials — who were allegedly involved in running a smuggling ring which illegally exported wild monkeys to the US for research purposes.

One of the Cambodian officials was arrested at John F Kennedy International Airport, prompting Phnom Penh to declare the arrest “unjustified”.

A Cambodian official told the Financial Times it has not imposed a ban on exports to the US. But the case has heightened industry concerns about the nation’s reliance on imports at a time when some research programmes face year-long delays due to a shortage of monkeys.

“If companies and academic researchers can’t get the non-human primate [monkeys] research models they need — then the work stops. You can say goodbye to new vaccines and drugs,” said Matthew Bailey, president at the National Association for Biomedical Research, an industry group.

“It is of crucial importance to public health and national security.”

Bailey said Washington should explore public private partnerships and other investment options to boost domestic breeding.

Supplies of the most popular monkey species used by pharmaceutical companies for research, long-tailed macaques, have been strained for several years due to strong demand from researchers and limited US-based breeding programmes.

A 2020 export ban levied by China — which at the time was the largest supplier to the US — during Covid-19 caused the price of lab monkeys to triple between 2019-22, according to research by Evercore ISI.

Evercore estimates the average prices of lab monkeys in 2019-20 was between $4,000-$7,000. In 2020-21 this increased to $10,000 and in 2021-22 it increased again to between $20,000-$24,000. Evercore forecasts prices will rise again to $30,000-$35,000 in 2023.

Elizabeth Anderson, an analyst at Evercore, said large pharma companies are not generally sensitive to NHP pricing but over the long-term high prices and supply disruption could prompt them to invest in their own breeding facilities rather than rely on imports.

Experts say academic researchers and smaller biotechs are more vulnerable to shortages and price rises of lab monkeys, which regulators insist are important to prove the safety of drugs in early studies.

Academics can source animals from seven national primate research centres, which are US-based breeding facilities funded by the National Institutes of Health. But the centres, which together have about 20,000-25,000 animals, say they do not have enough animals to meet demand and need more funding, the directors of two facilities told the FT. 

“We are more than a year behind in many of our studies. Personally, I have one grant that had not been able to assign animals to for more than a year,” said Professor Nancy Haigwood, director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center.

Skip Bohm, associate director of the Tulane National Primate Research Center, said an audit of research requests across the seven US centres showed they were 3,000 animals short in 2021.

“Over the past decade, we’ve kind of bridged the gap and put band-aids on the situation, but . . . if it continues in this way. We’re really worried that we’re going to have to stop some studies,” he said.

The National Institutes of Health said there is an ongoing challenge to supply an adequate supply of NHPs for biomedical research due to the shortage but condemned all illegal trade of animals.

“Any solution . . . must be done so in accordance with animal welfare-related policies and compliance oversight procedures in accordance with the federal laws, regulations, and policies.”

In July the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed long-tailed macaques for the first time as “endangered”, in part due to skyrocketing demand for the species in medical research.

Peta, an animal rights group, said researchers’ reliance on lab monkeys was outdated as there are much better human-relevant research methods available.

Lisa Jones-Engel, Peta’s senior science adviser, said US scientists had never been successful at breeding complex, sensitive monkeys without appallingly high death rates.

“That’s why they’ve been willing to buy animals kidnapped from their own homes in Asia, Africa and South America . . . We have to stop the monkey experimenters from hijacking the funds needed to implement them.”

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