9 Jul 2022

Jackie Flynn Mogensen: Shortage of primates for research

From Saturday Morning, 9:35 am on 9 July 2022

Jackie Flynn Mogensen’s investigation of a plane load of monkeys that did not leave Mauritius for the United States led her to the story of a monkey shortage in the research world.

While Mogensen accepts that testing on our closest animal relatives can be troublesome, she says it’s clear the practice has saved—and is saving—human lives; before their vaccines were released to the masses, PfizerModerna, and Johnson & Johnson trialled them on monkeys first.

Expert have told the Mother Jones reporter that the dire shortage of primates for biomedical research could put human lives at risk.

long tail macaque monkey trade

Photo: Pxfuel

The supply of research monkeys is not meeting the demand by US scientists, Mogensen tells Kim Hill.

“One of the biggest reasons is that China has stopped exporting to the United States. So in total, in 2019, the United States imported about 34,000 monkeys into the US, about 19,000 of which were from China … and in 2021, the numbers dropped significantly.

Jackie Flynn Mogensen

Photo: Courtesy Mother Jones Magazine

“The price for a single monkey has gone double to about $10,000 in early 2020 and has since doubled again to about $20,000 for just one monkey. So you know, economically speaking, it is a shortage.”

The difficulties of obtaining primate animals for research has impacts on their welfare too, she says.

“A lot of the researchers I spoke with pointed out that younger animals are being imported due to the high demand, they pointed out they’re less robust, in the words of one private researcher I spoke to, there are also concerns about tapping into wild populations.”

Mauritius and Cambodia have largely filled the space of where China used to be on animal primate imports into the US, she says.

“In the case of Mauritius, they were originally an invasive species and the country started exporting them for research purposes.

“But I think there was some concern from some experts that I spoke to that countries may be fudging the numbers a little bit on what's purpose bred and what's wild caught because there's such a high demand right now and people are willing to pay a ton of money for monkeys to be imported for research purposes to the US.”

Although the US has seven centres tasked with providing colonies of research monkeys, they say they don’t have enough funds to expand and reach the demand, Mogensen says.

So the country has had to also rely on imports, she says, as was the case with a plane of monkeys that was meant to arrive from Mauritius in July 2020 but, according to court documents, it didn’t make it due to special interests activist groups.

“There's a good case to be made that this flight may have been affected by animal rights groups, but we don't know for sure because the only people that know what happened is the air carrier and they were not open to speaking with me.”

Through her article, Mogensen says she wanted to look at the benefits of animal testing, but also be clear about the costs.

“I feel like most Americans, most people don't know that their Covid vaccine was tested on animals before being released to the masses, and so I think it's just something to point out for them to hopefully understand and think about both sides of it, the benefits and the costs.”

Researchers argue that there is currently no alternate to the primate model, with it being the closest we can get to humans, she says.

“Researchers I spoke to said it's absolutely a necessary resource. And animal rights groups that I spoke to said that it's being wasted, so it's a tricky place to be in the middle there.

“You can understand that testing on animals may save human lives, but also be very uncomfortable with what that means and what's required to get there and so a lot of it comes down to deciding between human lives and animal lives and where our ethics lie and I think it's different for everybody.”

But animal welfare regulation in US science labs has improved since the 1980s, when high-profile laboratory incidents went public, she says.

“I really, really hope that there's funding going into research for alternatives in addition to maybe relying more on domestically bred animals in the United States. I do feel like the welfare for animals here is a lot better than relying on transporting them across the Atlantic Ocean, which is a very difficult journey for the animals.”