Mark Lewis was desperate for monkeys. Millions of human lives around the world were at stake.
Mr. Lewis, Bioqual's CEO, was responsible for supplying laboratory monkeys to pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, who needed the animals to develop their Covid-19 vaccines. But when the coronavirus swept across the United States last year, few of the purpose-bred monkeys could be found anywhere in the world.
Not being able to supply scientists with monkeys, which could cost more than $ 10,000 each, about a dozen companies continued to look for research animals at the height of the pandemic.
"We lost work because we couldn't deliver the animals on time," said Mr. Lewis.
The world needs monkeys, whose DNA is very similar to that of humans, to develop Covid-19 vaccines. But a global shortage due to unexpected demand from the pandemic has been exacerbated by a recent ban on the sale of wildlife from China, the main supplier of the lab animals.
The latest shortage has revived the discussion about creating a strategic monkey sanctuary in the United States, an emergency supply similar to that of the government for oil and grain.
As new variants of the coronavirus threaten to render the current batch of vaccines obsolete, scientists are rushing to find new sources of monkeys, and the United States is rethinking its reliance on China, a rival with its own biotech ambitions.
The pandemic has underscored how much China has control over the supply of life-saving goods, including masks and medicines that the United States needs in a crisis.
American scientists have searched private and government-funded facilities in Southeast Asia and Mauritius, a small island nation off Southeast Africa, for stocks of their favorite subjects, rhesus macaques and cynomolgus macaques, also known as long-tailed macaques.
But no country can make up for what China delivered before. Before the pandemic, China supplied more than 60 percent of the 33,818 primates, mostly cynomolgus macaques, imported to the United States in 2019, according to analyst estimates based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The United States has as many as 25,000 lab monkeys – mostly pink-headed rhesus monkeys – in its seven primate centers. About 600 to 800 of those animals have been subject to coronavirus research since the start of the pandemic.
Scientists say monkeys are ideal specimens for coronavirus vaccine research before testing on humans. The primates share more than 90 percent of our DNA, and their similar biology means they can be tested with nasal swabs and their lungs scanned. Scientists say it is nearly impossible to find a substitute for testing Covid-19 vaccines, although drugs such as dexamethasone, the steroid used to treat President Donald J. Trump, has been tested in hamsters.
The United States once relied on India to provide rhesus monkeys. But in 1978 India stopped its exports after the Indian press reported that the monkeys were used in military tests in the United States. Pharmaceutical companies were looking for an alternative.
Eventually they landed on China.
The pandemic disrupted what has been a decades-long relationship between American scientists and Chinese suppliers.
"When the Chinese market closed, it forced everyone to move to a smaller number of available animals," said Mr. Lewis.
For years, several airlines, including the major US airlines, have done the same refused to transport animals used in medical research due to opposition from animal rights activists.
In the meantime, the price for a cynomolgus monkey has more than doubled from a year ago to well over $ 10,000, Mr. Lewis said. Scientists researching treatments for other diseases, including Alzheimer's and AIDS, say their work has been delayed because the priority for the animals goes to coronavirus researchers.
The shortage has led a growing number of US scientists to call on the government to ensure a steady supply of the animals.
Skip Bohm, the associate director and chief veterinary medical officer at Tulane National Primate Research Center outside New Orleans, said the discussion about a strategic monkey sanctuary began about 10 years ago among the directors of the national primate research centers. But no stock was ever built up due to the amount of money and time it took to build a breeding program.
"Our idea was a bit like the strategic oil reserve, in that there is a lot of fuel somewhere that is only tapped in an emergency," said Professor Bohm.
But as new variants of the virus are discovered, potentially restarting the race for a vaccine, scientists say the government should take immediate action against the stock.
"The strategic monkey sanctuary is just what we needed to deal with Covid, and we just didn't have it," said Keith Reeves, a lead investigator at the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Harvard Medical School.
But a robust strategic reserve still cannot meet the skyrocketing demand for laboratory animals, researchers in China have learned. Even with a government-controlled stockpile of about 45,000 monkeys, researchers in China say they are also grappling with a shortage.
Researchers often collect hundreds of specimens from a single monkey, whose tissues can be frozen for years and studied for long periods. The scientists say they get the most out of every animal, but monkeys infected with Covid-19 cannot be brought back to live among other healthy animals and must eventually be euthanized.
In January, Shen Weiguo, general manager of the Shanghai Technology Venture Capital Group, told local lawmakers that three major biomedical companies in the city were short of 2,750 research monkeys last year, according to a report in state news media. The deficit is expected to grow by 15 percent annually over the next five years, Mr. Shen said.
Hubei Topgene Biotechnology raises monkeys for in-house research and for export. The United States used to be the main export destination, but the company currently doesn't have enough animals to run its own experiments, said Yan Shuo, a sales manager.
"Well, it's not even a question of money," said Mr. Yan. "We don't even have monkeys to sell abroad."
The United States has seven national primate research centers where, if not examined, the animals live in colonies with access to wildlife and enrichment activities. The facilities are affiliated with research universities and are funded by the National Institutes of Health. Animal rights activists have long accused the centers of abuse, including separating babies from their mothers.
Matthew R. Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, said he was preparing to raise the monkey shortage with the Biden administration. He said China's decision to cease exports at the start of the pandemic "was likely a cautious emergency measure". but he suggested that China should resume exports, given what is now known about the spread of the virus.
China's Foreign Ministry said the ban did not target specific species or countries.
Once the international situation improves and import and export conditions are met, "the ministry said in a statement," China will actively consider resuming import and export licensing and other related work. & # 39;
Experts said the United States had to bear some responsibility for not having enough research monkeys.
Budgets in the national primate centers have remained flat or declined for over a decade. Koen Van Rompay, an infectious disease expert at the California National Primate Research Center, said the federal government had asked the center about 10 years ago to expand its breeding colonies, but had not given it additional funding so that it would instead his colony has shrunk.
"What we did in a number of cases was we gave birth control to our women," said Dr. From Rompay. "So fewer babies would be born in the spring."
At a panel hosted by the National Institutes of Health in December 2018, scientists discussed the challenges facing America's primate supply. There was a realization then that "if China decides to turn off the water, we're going to be in big trouble," said Jeffrey Roberts, the deputy director of the California National Primate Research Center.
Attendees "agreed that the need to breed cynomolgus macaques domestically is essential and could jeopardize biomedical research in the United States as a whole," said a report of the meeting. "They stressed that it may already be too late to meet this need, but will certainly be too late in a few months."
Amber Wang and Elsie Chen contributed research.