Deputies concerned about shortage of monkeys for laboratory research

Chen Huizhi
China is a major exporter of research monkeys, but its domestic CRO firms are faced with a shortage of the key lab animals and skyrocketing prices.
Chen Huizhi

The intensive research on vaccines for COVID-19 over the past year has been a warning about the shortage of monkeys for laboratory research by the pharmaceutical industry in China, according to a number of deputies to the Shanghai People’s Congress.

The shortage could be intensified in the coming years as the industry keeps expanding, and impede research and development of medicines in China, they warned.

Monkeys as non-human primates are indispensable in research for the development of new medicines. The demand keeps rising as the biomedical industry in China keeps expanding and national medicine safety evaluation standards are raised, according to Shen Weiguo, general manager of Shanghai Technology Venture Capital Group Co.

Although rats are still mainly used as lab animals, they often can’t be infected with new viruses, which will affect the efficiency of medicine development, Shen explained.

About 6,000 laboratory monkeys were used in the research and development of vaccines and medicines for COVID-19 last year, accounting for 30 percent of all such monkeys used in medicine development annually in China, he said.

In the meantime, three large players in the biomedical industry in Shanghai said they were short of 2,750 research monkeys last year, and the number is expected to grow by 15 percent annually in the next five years, Shen said.

In addition to the shortage, was the skyrocketing prices of the monkeys as some companies in Shanghai spent 80 percent more money on them last year than the previous year, he said.

China is one of the major exporters of research monkeys in the world, with 60 percent of those from monkey farms in China exported, according to Shen.

Meanwhile, China exerts strict control on the import of research monkeys. In 2019 the country imported 6,000 to 8,000 research monkeys from Southeast Asia, while the largest clinical research organizations (CROs) have signed long-term contracts with some monkey farms, Shen said.

Deputies called for the government to step in to ensure the supply of research monkeys for the domestic pharmaceutical industry.

In the US, for example, among the 50,000 to 60,000 monkeys used in the labs there every year, 20,000 to 30,000 were imported from China. The country has research monkey farms in Southeast Asia with about 60,000 monkeys, apart from eight national centers for non-human primates as its strategic reserve, according to Ren Jin, another deputy who is the director of the Center for Drug Safety Evaluation and Research of Shanghai Institute of Material Media, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In his suggestion, Shen called for the Shanghai government to coordinate with provinces with rich sources of research monkeys to ensure monkey supply for the short term, and to plan strategic monkey farms locally.

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