One of the obstacles Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and other pharmaceutical companies faced in racing to develop their coronavirus vaccines was a shortage of monkeys—which are critical to the testing process. Monkeys share more than 90% of humans' DNA, the New York Times reports, making them researchers' preferred test subjects before testing on people begins. In fact, scientists have no good second option. So it was a problem when a dozen or so companies ran out of monkeys. "We lost work because we couldn’t supply the animals in the time frame," said the chief executive of Bioqual, a company that supplies lab monkeys. The shortage is attributed to a recent ban imposed by China, the top supplier, on wildlife sales, as well as increased demand during the pandemic. In addition, several airlines won't transport animals used in research anymore because of pressure from animal rights groups.
The shortage has touched off a search of sources, mostly in Southeast Asia, of the specially bred long-tailed macaques. In the meantime, the price for a cynomolgus monkey has more than doubled in the past year, to more than $10,000. There's been talk of creating a strategic monkey reserve for more than a decade, but there was never enough money or lead time. "Our idea was sort of like the strategic oil reserve, in that there’s lots and lots of fuel somewhere that is only tapped in an emergency," said Skip Bohm of the Tulane National Primate Research Center near New Orleans. The current pandemic could add urgency. "The strategic monkey reserve is exactly what we needed to deal with COVID, and we just didn't have it," said an investigator at Harvard's Center for Virology and Vaccine Research. In Brazil, monkeys are being vaccinated, but not as a test. Scientists are attacking a yellow fever outbreak by vaccinating monkeys, per the BBC, to stop the disease before it reaches humans. (A national infrastructure is needed to eliminate the shortage, an expert said.)