Monkeys are not the answer

The rhesus macaque is one of the best-known species of Old World monkeys. It is listed as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in view of its wide distribution, presumed large population, and its tolerance of a broad range of habitats.

A few months ago in Science First, we shared with you efforts being made by the animal research community to increase nonhuman primate research for vaccine development. The articles discussed how an increased demand for monkeys during the COVID-19 pandemic and the drop in supply of monkeys from China during this time has led to fewer primates being available for research.

While NAVS sees this as an important opportunity for the research community to move away from traditional experiments with nonhuman primates and toward the use of human-relevant tools instead, a recent article in the New York Times continued to push the agenda of the animal research community. The article reiterated that monkeys are “in short supply” and went so far as to suggest the creation of “a strategic monkey reserve in the United States,” comparing intelligent, sentient animals with the capacity to suffer and feel pain in lab experiments to “an emergency stockpile similar to those maintained by the government for oil and grain.”

The short-sighted article did not consider the other side of the story: that there are serious scientific and ethical reasons that non-human primate experimentation should not be pursued. The use of animal models as stand-ins for humans can give rise to misleading results because of the intrinsic differences between humans and other species. Investment in human-relevant models is the solution to the “problem” of a non-human primate shortage.

And “stockpiling” animals for experiments is never an appropriate solution. Recall that the stockpiles of chimpanzees, who were made available to the research community in abundance for HIV/AIDS research decades ago, are no longer experimented on, as research in this species was deemed “unnecessary” after careful evaluation. Let’s also not forget how “stockpiles” of rodents were treated at the beginning of the pandemic—when they were mass culled and euthanized in large numbers due to research disruptions and the potential shortage of animal care that could result from issues related to the coronavirus.

Rather than discuss a monkey “shortage,” the New York Times and others should be examining why the cruelty and waste of animal experimentation continues to occur in this country and around the world.  Why nearly 71,000 nonhuman primates were used for research in the U.S. in 2018 (the last year for which animal use statistics are available), yet we are discussing a “shortage” of these animals.

Too many animals are being used in research—not too few.

Rather than discussing a lack of monkeys, we should now, more than ever, take every opportunity that we can to move away from the traditional use of animal models in science and ensure that everything possible is being done to protect the lives of all animals involved in research.

Help NAVS ensure that the treatment of lab animals as expendable research tools, and not as living, sentient beings, comes to an end.