While some researchers will be forced to scale back projects due to the tariffs, others might cease U.S. operations and move research to China. While some of the monkeys are imported from Mauritius, Cambodia and Vietnam, not enough of them pass research standards in those countries to meet U.S. demand. Some U.S. researchers argue that they cannot develop treatments without the cheap access to Chinese primates. The number of nonhuman primates tested in U.S. labs increased by 22% from 2015 to 2017, according to the Department of Agriculture.
In 2017, U.S. researchers experimented on 75,825 nonhuman primates, mostly rhesus macaques, the Chinese- and Indian-derived monkeys with brown fur and a reddish-pink face. Under scrutiny from animal rights organizations, researchers have long argued that nonhuman primates are essential for developing treatments for human diseases. This includes the polio vaccine, blood transfusions and organ transplants as well as developing treatments for malaria and improving existing treatments for Parkinson’s. Charles Roberts, a research director at Oregon National Primate Research Center, which has more than 4,000 primates, said that tariffs were less of a concern for academic research, and more of a problem for pharma researchers.
«The bigger picture is that in terms of utilizing nonhuman primates to make advancements in medical treatments, that momentum is shifting to China. They are putting huge investments in, whereas the U.S. isn’t,» he said. «In China, they don’t have issues with animal rights extremists, whereas in the U.S. we are always justifying why we are using nonhuman primates. That has an effect on research, whereas in China they are not worried about that».
In the U.S., there are seven federally funded U.S. primate research centers that are partnering with the National Institutes of Health. In the U.S., about two-thirds are rhesus macaques, but others study cynomolgus macaques, baboons and other species, according to the NIH. The new tariffs come as primate research centers in the U.S. struggle to acquire live primates from China, facing intense scrutiny from animal rights groups and bans on transportation. Harvard University shuttered its national primate research center in 2015 following an investigation into four animal deaths.
That same year, the NIH ended funding for all invasive chimpanzee studies and said those animals were no longer needed for research. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which advocates for animal rights, says it would like a total ban on monkey imports, or higher tariffs, in order to slow breeding in China. «To the extent that tariffs prevent the shipment of monkeys from coming to the U.S., it’s a good thing, since it keeps the animals out of the laboratories,» said D.J. Schubert, wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. «But it won’t persist for an extended period of time,» he added.
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