Shortage of monkeys slowed down Eli Lilly's Covid-19 antibody partner. And it's a problem for everyone
It may not be surprising that Shanghai Junshi Biosciences has pushed back some clinical trials to prioritize its Eli Lilly-partnered Covid-19 antibody. But what exactly was sucking up their time is almost certain to raise some eyebrows: The company spent months finding enough monkeys on which to test the experimental drug.
Junshi’s plight highlights a serious, if oft-underlooked, challenge that’s beset the whole biomedical research enterprise. Testing a molecule on non-human primates is often a crucial final step before it can be moved into the clinic, but a confluence of factors have resulted in a shortage in both the US and Europe just as drugmakers were scrambling to put their experimental programs through trials at record speed.
Junshi COO Feng Hui told investors on a call on Friday that the shortage was acute between February and June, when the biotech was competing with other companies and institutes.
But the issue remains unresolved. Just days ago, the European Animal Research Association brought attention to a “growing shortage of purpose-bred macaque monkey” used in Covid-19 and other vital research.
One of the main bottlenecks is how China, a main source of monkeys for medical research, has banned the export from breeding facilities since the beginning of 2020 citing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
“The ongoing embargo is now beginning to have serious consequences for research in Europe and the rest of the world,” the group wrote in a statement. Kirk Leech, the executive director, added: “Monkeys play a critical role in the development of vaccines, such as those for Covid-19, and urgent international co-operation is needed to lift the ban.”
In a letter urging the WHO to intervene, EARA argued that “while the suspension was prudent at the time it has become clear that animals exported from China possess a very low risk of transmitting any communicable disease.” Research monkeys, they added, are also subject to strict rules in handling and transportation, including quarantine and personal protective equipment requirements.
Still, those facing the challenge are not optimistic that the problem will be solved soon. As the Atlantic reported in August, Bioqual — which has done primate research for Moderna’s vaccine and several other Covid-19 players — said while it was initially able to reuse some animals from non-disease studies, the supply had been used up.
New macaques also cost $10,000, double the original price.
“This may just be the beginning,” R. Keith Reeves, a virologist at Harvard working on HIV, told the Atlantic. “And I think that we’re all preparing for there to be significant delays.”
For its part, Junshi has proceeded into human trials of its antibody. Results from a recent study testing it in combination with bamlanivimab, the antibody developed by Eli Lilly and AbCellera, impressed analysts and paved the way for an emergency use authorization request. The FDA has granted an EUA for bamlanivimab.
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