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Scientists have called on the US government to increase investment in laboratory monkey breeding programs as a smuggling scandal in Cambodia threatens to worsen a shortage of laboratory animals that is hurting the life sciences industry.

Academics conducting some studies are already facing delays of up to a year because of difficulty in supplying so-called non-human primates, which regulators argue are essential to proving drugs’ safety in early studies.

Rising demand for lab monkeys amid Covid-19, an export ban from China and underfunding of domestic breeding programs in the US have disrupted the NHP supply chain and caused prices to triple, according to industry experts.

Two of the pharmaceutical industry’s largest suppliers of lab monkeys, US-listed Charles River and Inotiv, recently warned investors that they expect disruptions to US imports from Cambodia, the country’s largest supplier of NHPs.

It follows the indictment last month by federal prosecutors of eight people, including two senior Cambodian government officials, who were allegedly involved in running a smuggling ring that illegally exported wild monkeys to the United States for research purposes.

A Cambodian official was detained at JFK International Airport, prompting Phnom Penh to declare the arrest “unwarranted”.

A Cambodian official told the Financial Times that it had not imposed an export ban to the US. But the case has raised industry concerns about the country’s reliance on imports at a time when some research projects face year-long delays due to a monkey shortage.

“If companies and academic researchers can’t get hold of a nonhuman primate [monkeys] the research models they need, then the work stops. You can say goodbye to new vaccines and drugs,” said Matthew Bailey, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an industry group.

“It’s critical to public health and national security.”

Bailey said Washington should explore public-private partnerships and other investment options to boost domestic breeding.

Supplies of long-tailed macaques, the most popular type of monkey used in research by pharmaceutical companies, have been tight for several years due to high demand from researchers and limited breeding programs in the United States.

A 2020 export ban imposed by China, then the largest supplier to the US, caused lab monkey prices to triple between 2019 and 2022 during Covid-19, according to Evercore ISI research.

Evercore estimates average prices for lab monkeys in 2019-2020 to be between $4,000 and $7,000. This increased to $10,000 in 2020-21 and again to $20,000-$24,000 in 2021-22. Evercore predicts prices will rise again to $30,000-$35,000 in 2023.

Elizabeth Anderson, an analyst at Evercore, said big pharma companies are largely insensitive to NHP pricing, but long-term high prices and supply disruptions could prompt them to invest in their own breeding facilities rather than rely on imports.

Experts say academic researchers and smaller biotechs are more vulnerable to shortages and rising prices of lab monkeys, which regulators argue are essential to proving drugs are safe in early studies.

Academics can obtain animals from the seven National Primate Research Centers, which are US-based breeding facilities funded by the National Institutes of Health. But the centres, which together hold around 20,000-25,000 animals, say they do not have enough animals to meet demand and need more funding, directors of both facilities told the FT.

“We are over a year behind on many of our studies. Personally, I have one grant that I could not allocate to animals for more than a year,” says Professor Nancy Haigwood, director of the National Primate Research Center in Oregon.

Skip Bohm, deputy director of Tulane’s National Primate Research Center, said an audit of research requests at seven U.S. centers showed they had a shortage of 3,000 animals by 2021.

“Over the last decade, we’ve sort of bridged that gap and put band-aids on the situation, but . . . if this continues. “We’re really worried that we’re going to have to stop some studies,” he said.

The National Institutes of Health says there is an ongoing challenge to ensure an adequate supply of NHPs for biomedical research due to scarcity, but has condemned the illegal animal trade.

“Any solution. . . this must be done in accordance with animal welfare policies and compliance monitoring procedures in accordance with federal laws, regulations and policies.”

In July, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed long-tailed macaques as “endangered” for the first time, due in part to a surge in demand for the species in medical research.

Peta, an animal rights group, says researchers’ reliance on lab monkeys is outdated because there are far better human-appropriate research methods.

Lisa Jones-Engel, PETA’s senior science adviser, says American scientists have never been successful in breeding complex, sensitive monkeys without an alarmingly high mortality rate.

“That’s why they are willing to buy animals that have been kidnapped from their homes in Asia, Africa and South America. . . We need to stop monkey experimenters from hijacking the funds needed to make them happen.”

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