China Is Running Out of Lab Monkeys To Experiment On

A ban on wildlife trade and an explosion in scientific research are causing a shortage of lab monkeys in China.
Monkey China lab research dogs
Cynomolgus macaques in a breeding center in Thailand. Photo: Mladen ANTONOV / AFP

China is facing an acute shortage of lab monkeys due to an import ban and rising demand from researchers, leaving scientists scrambling to find affordable animals to carry on their studies. 

The dwindling supply of lab monkeys, which are widely used in the testing and research of drugs and vaccines, has pushed their prices in China up fourfold in two years from $2,300 to $9,200, researchers have told Chinese media outlets.

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Zhang Wen, the owner of Jiangsu Johnsen Bioresource Co., a monkey and beagle breeding company in eastern China, told VICE World News the hundreds of adult lab monkeys he could produce in a year were all reserved by research institutions even before the animals came of age. He said he had to turn down many other buyers.

A major cause of the shortage was Beijing’s ban on overseas wildlife trade, which was imposed in January 2020 as part of a sweeping crackdown on the wildlife business some scientists have linked to the pandemic. Under the ban, the import and export of lab monkeys also stopped, state media reported. 

However, the ban decimated China’s own lab monkey supply, since most primate species suitable for research, such as the cynomolgus macaque, are native to Southeast Asia. 

The surging demand has attracted much investment in the industry, Zhang said, but breeders are unable to drastically raise their output with the limited pool of monkeys in China.

“Animals have their own life cycles,” Zhang said. “They are not like industrial goods: as long as you switch into a high gear, you can churn out the products.” 

China used to be a major lab monkey exporter to the United States, which uses more of the animal than any other country. In fiscal year 2019, labs in the U.S. used some 68,000 non-human primates and a total of about 800,000 animals for research, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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After China halted its animal exports early last year, researchers in the U.S. complained about a monkey shortage that impeded research on COVID-19, according to reports by the Atlantic and the New York Times

But Zhang, who used to export a few thousand monkeys every year, said China’s export ban alone should not be blamed for the shortage in the U.S. With expanding pharmaceutical research in China, local breeders could barely keep up with demand at home even before the pandemic. 

The number of lab monkeys used in the country rose from about 8,000 in 2013 to about 30,000 in 2019, the report said, citing the China Laboratory Primate Breeding and Development Association. Data for 2020 is not available.

Monkeys are the preferred subjects in studying human diseases or medicines because of their similarity with humans. They’re used in the development of most biological products, which are made from living microorganisms, and 20 to 30 percent of synthetic drugs, according to a report by China Newsweek

During the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have also infected monkeys with the coronavirus to study the effects of the virus on their organs and immune systems. Monkeys were also widely used in vaccine development, although it’s unclear exactly how many of the animals were involved.

The fight for lab monkeys has become so intense that some researchers are calling for government intervention. In an interview with financial media Yicai, Ren Jin, a Shanghai-based scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the government could set up a centralized pool of lab monkeys and prioritize supplying important research programs.

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Zhang, the lab animal breeder, said he expected the shortage to stay for the years to come, and scientists might need to find alternatives to macaques, such as baboons, whenever possible. 

Rising demand for beagles, which Zhang’s company also breeds, has driven prices up from $470 six months ago to as much as $780, he said. 

Beagles are also widely used in scientific research globally, because of their docile nature. But the alleged inhumane killing and mistreatment of lab dogs have been criticized by animal rights groups in the U.S. 

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.