US labs are facing a monkey shortage that could delay important medical research after an international smuggling ring was busted in Cambodia.
Last month, US federal prosecutors charged eight people with illegally poaching hundreds of endangered primates from Southeast Asia and shipping them to the US.
Among the accused were two Cambodian wildlife officials accused of taking payments to facilitate a program that allegedly kidnapped monkeys from national parks and sanctuaries in Cambodia and falsely described them as “captive bred”.
One of the officers — the deputy director of wildlife and biodiversity at the Cambodia Forest Service — was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
If convicted, the eight suspects, six of whom belong to a “major primate care organization” based in Hong Kong and Cambodia, face up to five years in prison for conspiracy and up to 20 years for smuggling.
According to the FT, two of the largest suppliers of laboratory monkeys to the pharmaceutical industry, US-listed Charles River and Inotiv, have now warned investors that the investigation could disrupt imports of animals used by regulators for early drug safety research are needed.
“If corporations and academic researchers can’t get the nonhuman primate [monkeys] Research models they need – then the work stops. You can say goodbye to new vaccines and drugs,” Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an industry group, told the FT.
“It is critical to public health and national security.”
Academics in life sciences are already facing delays of up to a year due to the challenge of sourcing monkeys, with scientists urging the US government to increase investment in laboratory breeding programs.
Laboratories traditionally use long-tailed macaques for drug testing. Despite being an endangered species, the monkeys are usually bred in captivity in the US or abroad, but market pressures resulted in wild monkeys being sourced illegally.
The shortage grew amid a surge in demand for nonhuman primates amid a rush to find vaccines to fight the pandemic and a 2020 ban on the sale of wild animals by China — previously one of the world’s largest exporters of laboratory animals.
This weekend, animal rights activists again called on the US government to stop importing nonhuman primates for laboratory use.
Documents obtained by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) from the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed deadly pathogens, zoonotic bacteria and viruses, including one classified as bioterrorist risk, entering the country The entry included monkeys imported from Asia between 2019 and 2021, the Guardian reported.