May 22, 2023

ED. FRONTLINES: U.S. animal research faces monkey shortage

Posted May 22, 2023 12:05 PM
<b>John Richard Schrock</b>
John Richard Schrock


In a report just released this month, the National Academies of Sciences described how the U.S. is facing a substantial shortage of nonhuman primates (monkeys) to continue vital biomedical research. The record amount of research conducted over the last three years in the battle against COVID-19 has dramatically reduced the supply of animals critical to determining the effectiveness and safety of medications and vaccines.

The journal Science reports over two-thirds of the 200 scientists who use nonhuman primates have had difficulty obtaining monkeys, delaying and sometimes canceling their research. While this does not apply to rhesus macaques that are bred in the United States, the cynomolgus macaques that are mainly used in vaccine and drug safety research are imported from Southeast Asia, and that supply has drastically diminished, driving up prices. The Science report indicates that “the U.S. uses about 70,000 monkeys per year in studies of the brain, infectious disease, and aging...” and the E.U. uses about 5,000.

The N.A.S. report recommends expanding U.S. domestic breeding programs, but that will take considerable time during which much research would be delayed. Meanwhile, China—which had been a supplier of research monkeys prior to the pandemic—stopped exporting them as their research needs expanded rapidly. One researcher notes that if only China maintains the monkeys needed for drug and vaccine testing, China will then be the owners of the resulting drugs and vaccines.   

The associate director of the Division of Animal Resources at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University points out in Mother Jones that the lack of research primates is “...a threat for bio defense. It’s a threat for our economy. It’s a threat for our standing in research.”

In the recent frenzy over AI, animal rightists have wrongly asserted that there is no longer any need for biomedical research with animals, and that tissue cultures, computer simulations and chip technology can now replace the need for testing on actual animals. But this is not the case for the many thousands of new unique chemicals that are involved. The fact that the human body has an array of different organs that respond differently to drugs and vaccines, producing metabolic byproducts and an unpredictable range of reactions from benign to fatal, makes simplistic computer models and tissue cultures unable to detect both effectiveness of drug action and especially likely harms. Researchers are very aware that biology is laden with many such “emergent properties” that are not predictable and require actual testing.

Promotion of these ineffective alternatives has been a major effort of White Coat Waste, an animal rightist group founded in 2013, that has recently become more effective persuading some liberal and conservative legislators to stop federal funding of animal research. While such PETA-like efforts would never have gained traction many decades ago when more legislators came from farm and ranch backgrounds, some more-urbanized politicians of today have been more susceptible to these arguments based on the high costs of research and pollyanna ideas about the false potential of new technology.

Holder, director of pro-science Speaking of Research, points out how ending funding for animal research would not save taxpayers money. “Addiction, diabetes, and other diseases cost the public millions of dollars a year,” he says. “If taxpayers don't pay for this more basic research, they'll pay for the effects of not doing it.”

For additional scientifically-accurate discussion of the vital use of animals in medical research, necessary for improvement in health of both humans and animals, readers can consult the websites of associations focused solely on this issue: American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, Americans for Medical Progress and the National Association for Biomedical Research.  

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  Further sources:

“Nonhuman Primate Models in Biomedical Research: State of the Science and Future Needs” by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine expert committee; May 3, 2023
Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

“U.S., European researchers face monkey shortage crisis” by David Grimm, Science, May 13, 2022, 380 (6645): 567-568 at

Speaking of Research: and
doi: 10.1126/science.aal0405

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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities during 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.