Among the myriad shortages in the global supply chain thanks to the pandemic are stocks of monkeys and other primates for biomedical research, and the problem has gotten so bad that as Mother Jones reporter Jackie Flynn Mogenson tells us in this week's Sunday Long Read, the fight for primates is being waged around the world in a sort of secret, clandestine battle.
On May 15, 2020, a US-bound cargo plane was scheduled to depart Mauritius, an island about the size of Maui that’s just east of Madagascar. There were four key things I knew about the flight:
- It involved the transportation of monkeys.
- The monkeys were intended for Covid research.
- The cost—to cover the fuel, crew, insurance, and other expenses—totaled nearly half a million dollars.
- The public was never supposed to find out about it.
In a backward sort of way, the only reason I can tell you anything about the flight is because it never happened.
The deal involved two companies, both of which could not have sounded more unimportant: an air carrier called Skybus Jet Cargo and a Delaware-based firm, International Logistics Support, which had arranged the flight. But, ultimately, the deal between the two companies fell through. The plane never took off. And shortly after, International Logistics Support sued Skybus for damages in a Miami court. With the resulting 300-plus pages of court documents, I was able to piece together these basics.
Still, there were big holes in the picture. For instance, who purchased the animals? How many were there? What species? (My best guess was long-tailed macaques, which are commonly sourced from Mauritius.) Where—which lab or labs—were the monkeys supposed to end up? And why, exactly, didn’t the flight take off as planned?
So I kept digging. I read everything I could find about the case. I submitted public records requests to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the United States Department of Agriculture, all of which oversee nonhuman primate trade, transport, and research. I asked animal rights groups, government officials, and academics if they had any information about the case. I reached out to the companies involved, only to conduct a series of fairly fruitless interviews with the owner of International Logistics Support, a guy named Matthew Block, who, it turns out, is something of an infamous character among animal rights groups. From nearly everyone else? Crickets.
Navigating the monkey business, I learned the hard way, is a bit like navigating a, well, jungle.
But my digging took me far beyond this singular flight. The Skybus case, in fact, offers a rare glimpse into the wider trade of monkeys—a famously secretive industry—during the worst health crisis in a century. In the records I was able to find, in the conversations with the few people who were willing to talk, and in the history I was able to mine, the details surrounding the flight pointed to a much bigger story: Primate research is in trouble. And the dilemma it is facing has very real, very urgent, very human stakes.
Due to a combination of factors—including a complete shutdown of primates being exported from China, an insufficient monkey reserve in the US, ongoing opposition from animal rights groups, and, of course, the Covid pandemic—the country is in the midst of a years-long monkey shortage. To put it simply, researchers say the supply of animals can’t keep up with the demand. In 2019, the US imported nearly 34,000 monkeys, about 60 percent of which came from China. After China closed off primate exports the following year, the total number dropped to less than 27,000—a 21 percent decline—and the price for a single macaque reportedly doubled to nearly $10,000 in early 2020, and has since risen to as much as $20,000. Without a reliable supply of monkeys, researchers are going to greater lengths to advance their work—paying more for primates, importing younger animals, “recycling” monkeys more often, and sourcing them more heavily from other locations, like Mauritius. For years, Block tells me, the US largely ignored calls to expand its own monkey colonies: “Now we’re paying the price.”
Believe me, I wish biomedical research had a better substitute for testing on our closest animal relatives. And one day, it might. But no matter how you or I feel about it, it’s clear the practice has saved—and is saving—human lives. If you received a shot of the Covid vaccine, for instance, you have monkeys to thank for it; before their vaccines were released to the masses, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson trialed them in monkeys first. The same is true for Covid treatments like monoclonal antibodies or the antiviral remdesivir. Monkeys were also instrumental in testing vaccines that can protect against monkeypox.
And so the monkey shortage is putting human lives at risk. Scientists say vital medical and scientific studies have been delayed or prevented entirely, leaving us ill-prepared to keep fighting this pandemic, not to mention future ones. “It’s a threat for bio defense. It’s a threat for our economy. It’s a threat for our standing in research,” says Joyce Cohen, the associate director of the Division of Animal Resources at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center housed at Emory University. “All these things are hugely important.”
Nevertheless, much like the individuals involved with the flight, many of the people affected by the shortage—breeders, pharma employees, scientists—were hesitant to talk about it, ignored my interview requests, asked to remain anonymous, or were generally cautious about how they described their work. Some cited fear of retaliation from animal rights groups, others had concerns about confidentiality. The irony is, talking about the problem—and educating the public about primate research more broadly—may be exactly what’s needed to help address the shortage itself.
It’s these factors that make the May 2020 flight more complicated—and more intriguing—than a simple contract dispute. According to Block, he and his unnamed client eventually got their shipment of monkeys delivered to the US, though it “slightly delayed research programs for COVID,” he tells me in an email. So while I can’t tell you the lab ID numbers of those monkeys, or the trials they likely participated in, I can tell you the history and context of the environment to which they arrived, and what the hell a plane full of monkeys set to fly across the Atlantic says about the state of science in America.