MATTHEW R. BAILEY
The race to vaccinate the country is on. People are starting to receive the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna. It is the second vaccine to receive emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration, after that of Pfizer and BioNTech.
Creating a coronavirus vaccine in less than a year is an amazing scientific achievement. But a global shortage of research animals – especially research monkeys – could prevent some of the world’s last life-saving vaccines from leaving the lab.
Before human testing, scientists first conducted research on rhesus macaque monkeys and mice. The research then proceeded to preliminary human clinical trials to study the impact of Pfizer’s vaccine. Rhesus macaques share about 93% of their DNA with humans, so they’re ideal for figuring out how people might react to a drug. The macaques showed no trace of coronavirus RNA in their lower respiratory tract after receiving a vaccine dose followed by a booster.
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The Moderna vaccine elicited similarly strong immune responses in rhesus macaques. Preclinical trials have shown that vaccinated primates developed antibodies in greater numbers than those who had just recovered from infection.
Although Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines were only developed last year, they are rooted in decades of animal research.
Both vaccines use messenger RNA to stimulate an immune response, a technique researchers began developing more than 20 years ago. Immunologist Drew Weissman and molecular biologist Katalin Kariko studied how RNA could force the production of specific proteins that fight disease. In a study involving mice, Weissman and Kariko discovered a method to produce the specific proteins by RNA without side effects.
They patented their work and the technology was eventually licensed to BioNTech and Moderna.
Other treatments for COVID-19 also have their origins in animal research. Consider antibody therapies from Regeneron and Eli Lilly.
Regeneron used genetically modified mice capable of mimicking a human immune system to develop its treatment. The researchers isolated antibodies created by mice and humans who had recovered from the virus and combined the most potent ones to produce what they call an “antibody cocktail”.
Regeneron’s antibody treatment successfully reduced viral loads in the airways of golden hamsters and rhesus macaques before approval for use in humans.
Eli Lilly’s antibody treatment almost never left the lab due to a global shortage of research animals. Shanghai Junshi Biosciences, Eli Lilly’s partner, spent months collecting enough monkeys to conduct a proper trial. This ultimately delayed the production of therapy.
Amid the pandemic, the demand for research animals has increased while the supply has decreased. China previously supplied 60% of the United States’ research monkeys, but the COVID-19 outbreak caused exports to halt.
This is not the only challenge facing researchers. Some activists say the use of animal models is inhumane. They plead for the government to curb this practice.
But they are wrong. Federal law requires researchers to provide appropriate anesthesia or pain medication for any potentially painful procedure and to limit the number of animals involved in preclinical trials. Veterinarians and animal technicians strictly supervise the caging, enrichment, exercise, feeding, health and welfare of animals.
Moreover, there is no viable substitute for research in live animal models. Even the most powerful supercomputers fail to reproduce or simulate the complexity of living organisms.
Thanks to vaccines developed through animal research, the end of the pandemic is in sight. Animal research can also provide the treatments we will need to fight the next public health crisis, if we let it.
Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research.