US increases funding for research monkeys in the wake of COVID

Rhesus macaques are the monkeys most often used in American biomedical research.Credit: Bernard Castelein / NaturePL

The US government is investing heavily to breed more monkeys at national facilities that house primates for biomedical research, Nature has learned. The goal is to make up for a continuing shortage of these animals, which worsened in 2020 as scientists tested dozens of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments on primates before human trials began.

To make room for more monkeys, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has invested about $ 29 million over the past two years in home renovations, building outdoor enclosures, and improvement of the infrastructures of the National Primate Research Centers (NPRC). that it finances. The agency expects to spend about an additional $ 7.5 million by October. And the administration of US President Joe Biden has offered to invest even more: citing the pandemic, it suggests a 27% increase in NPRC funding in its budget request for fiscal year 2022. If approved by Congress , that would add $ 30 million for the centers.

“We have made investments to raise the standards and plan for the future,” says James Anderson, director of the NIH division of program coordination, planning and strategic initiatives in Bethesda, Md. “What happens if [a pandemic] recurs, with another virus in three years? We want to be ready for it.

American scientists use non-human primates, most often rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), to study a range of medical conditions, including infectious diseases. Genetically and physiologically similar to humans, primate models provide a way to perform tests and experiments before human trials or when human trials are not possible. In 2019, American scientists used 68,257 non-human primates in research, according to the US government.

“A few years ago, we were feeling the pinch,” says Nancy Haigwood, director of the Oregon NPRC in Beaverton, which is home to around 5,000 non-human primates. But due to the pandemic, “we really don’t have any animals anymore,” she said. “We reject everyone.”

Experts say the new funding is a step in the right direction, but it will take more investment to fully address the shortage.

“It is very encouraging to see the Biden administration investing in the future of primate research in the United States,” said Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) in Washington DC, a group which advocates support for animal research. . But he adds that it takes time to establish monkey colonies, and yields could take years. “It’s a smart move, but it’s not like flipping a switch – it won’t change overnight.”

An exacerbated shortage

The demand for research on non-human primates in the United States has skyrocketed over the past five years. A multitude of NIH grants awarded in 2016 to study HIV / AIDS triggered an increase in the use of rhesus macaques, according to a 2018 report. Non-human primates are expensive to house and feed, and budget caps meant the NPRCs lacked the funds to build infrastructure to expand their capacity, according to the report. The analysis warned that demand for rhesus macaques, marmosets and possibly baboons could exceed the capacity of centers in coming years.

The issue has sparked public interest – and opposition. Animal rights groups seeking to end the use of animals in research have collided with scientists and funders who insist that experiments on model species are needed to treat and understand dozens of diseases, from neurodegenerative diseases to cancer.

Monkeys seated on a crate swing in a large caged enclosure.

Rhesus macaques roost in an outdoor enclosure at the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, Louisiana.Credit: Kathleen Flynn / Reuters / Alamy

Transporting animals has become a particular challenge. Over the past decade, after pressure from animal rights groups, many airlines have stopped transporting primates for research. The NABR filed a complaint with the US Department of Transportation in 2018, asking it to order airlines to transport the animals. Last month, 90 universities, scientific societies and companies asked the ministry to take up the matter.

The pandemic has highlighted the need for research monkeys. “As expected, non-human primates, largely rhesus, were absolutely essential in early testing of vaccines and therapeutics,” Anderson said.

In the face of a rush of requests for the use of monkeys last year, the NIH convened an internal committee to review and prioritize the projects that most urgently needed non-human primates. The goal was to funnel resources into COVID-19 work without disrupting studies on other conditions, Anderson explains.

China has become a major supplier of cynomolgus macaques (Macaca fascicularis), but stopped shipping the animals once the pandemic began. The change has been the most difficult for pharmaceutical companies, who prefer this species for drug trials. Anderson says the NIH is focusing on rhesus macaques, which are most in demand in university labs. Rhesus monkeys tend to thrive in captive research environments, and decades of research on the species means their biology and genetics are well understood.

Room to grow

About $ 8 million of the recent increase in funding for the NPRC came from last year’s CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) law, whereby the US government authorized an emergency sum of money. for work related to COVID-19. Some of these funds have helped increase the capacity of biosafety laboratories that safely house monkeys infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

Centers with room for growth received the first grants when the NIH began ramping up spending two years ago, says Sheri Hild, health sciences administrator in the Division of Comparative Medicine at the NIH Office of Research Infrastructure Programs. in Bethesda. In particular, those who could build outdoor housing for the monkeys were given priority – for example, the Oregon NPRC received around $ 3.5 million to allow it to house up to 20% more animals. short term. An outdoor arrangement is cheaper and potentially better for the animals than an indoor arrangement, says Hild.

At Tulane NPRC in Covington, Louisiana, associate director Skip Bohm aims to add 1,000 monkeys to the 4,500 in the breeding colony the center currently houses. The center received $ 5 million from NIH, Bohm says. But he warns that the impact of the funds will be some time to come. “The investment they make now is for the future – [the monkeys] will not be here next year.

The Southwest NPRC of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio has received about $ 3 million from NIH to increase capacity by 10-20%. The center is currently home to 2,500 animals, mainly baboons, rhesus macaques and marmosets. Meanwhile, Texas Biomedical is planning a new building to house 1,000 additional monkeys and finance most of the $ 13.5 million cost.

The center has felt the effects of the COVID-19 crisis firsthand. During the first months of the pandemic, New York-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer worked with the Southwest NPRC to test the company’s COVID-19 vaccine, which is based on messenger RNA. The center has asked Pfizer to provide its own non-human primates for the job, says its director, Deepak Kaushal.

NIH expansion funding is “both unusual and new,” he says, but still limited. “Talking about the larger context is like a drop in the ocean.”

To completely reset and revamp the current configuration of the NPRCs, Kaushal estimates that the NIH would need to invest a one-time sum of $ 50 million – well beyond current levels, and even more than the ambitious demand of Biden’s 2022 budget proposal. . “I could be wrong, but I think it would be a good start. “

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