The Corner


A Lack of Research Monkeys Threatens Vital Virus Research

A crab-eating Macaque monkey plays with toys at the Monkey’s park near Tel Aviv, Israel, December 6, 2004. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

To state the obvious, the U.S.–China relationship is at the lowest point since Chairman Mao was alive.

President Trump bluntly declares: “The virus could have been stopped in China and it wasn’t, and the whole world is suffering because of it.” For its part, China alternates between protesting its innocence and raising dark theories that the virus originated through Western action.

But the hostility shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of the two nations fighting the virus going forward. But that’s what is happening.

China is refusing to allow American companies access to monkeys they already own and need for research on developing a vaccine or treatments. The U.S. bureaucracy is distracted and has so far failed to press the urgent case for freeing the monkeys to be shipped to U.S. research labs.

The crab-eating macaque monkey is the most widely used animal in studies that allow experimental medicines to move to clinical trials in humans. Dogs, rabbits, and pigs cannot be used to test new drugs. But monkeys have helped make great strides in cancer drugs as well as treatments for hepatitis C, rare diseases of the nervous system, and many others. The problem is that attempts to raise the monkeys domestically outside of their normal habitat and climate have largely been failures.

That leaves importing the monkeys, and while several countries can supply the monkeys, China currently provides 60 percent of the monkeys used. Only China can provide sufficient numbers to support the needed medical research on the coronavirus.

Several U.S. companies have already paid for Chinese monkey populations and are waiting for them to be shipped to the U.S. But China is sitting on the permits, and U.S. bureaucrats have been slow to respond. If the impasse isn’t resolved within days, the U.S. will lose the window for starting efficacy tests on several key drugs.

Back in February, local Chinese officials began stopping monkey shipments after the central government banned animal transportation. A scheduled charter flight for April 29 had to be canceled. The next scheduled shipment date is May 15. If that date is missed, it’s possible another charter won’t be available for weeks.

There are two players here. The Chinese government has lived down to our low expectations for it in international cooperation on the virus. It has failed to issue the needed permits for monkey shipments. The U.S. government and its embassy in Beijing has been unable — or unwilling — to engage the Chinese on the importance of the shipments and force action.

If some action isn’t taken soon, our coronavirus health-care crisis could be extended unnecessarily. And this time, the reasons would be entirely man-made.


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