By Jordana Lenon
Jan. 21, 2021
For all of us planning to get a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming months, now is a great time to thank all the researchers and animal care experts for all they have done to make these safe and effective vaccines possible. We owe them our most profound gratitude.
Early in 2020, the United States Congress, through the National Institutes of Health, called upon the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and the other NIH-supported National Primate Research Centers – as it had done with HIV, Ebola, Zika and other RNA virus threats – to see if they could identify appropriate monkey species to help researchers understand what the novel coronavirus does to the body as a starting point to discover safe and effective vaccines to prevent infection.
The experts went to work. Within months, they discovered how important nonhuman primate models, especially macaques, were for studying human COVID-19. As reported in both the science and mainstream news media throughout the summer, it took a breathtakingly short amount of time for NPRC scientists and their collaborators to make incredible progress. They built on their expertise in fighting RNA viruses. They found that, in rhesus, pigtailed and cynomolgus macaques, the disease operates so similarly to how it infects humans that, before summer’s end, several vaccine candidates were in the pipeline. Other key models for COVID-19, such as mice and hamsters, contributed to the broadening knowledge of how best to tackle the disease in humans.
NPRC scientists closely studied SARS-CoV-2 transmission routes and pathogenesis – the respiratory virus’s activity once it’s in the body and what it does to other cells, tissues and organs, not just the lungs. They also conducted detailed genetic studies on the virus to help pharmaceutical researchers use pieces of its genetic code to fashion vaccine candidates and test them for safety and effectiveness in macaques.
Each basic research or vaccine study with monkeys typically involves anywhere from six to a few dozen animals, with at least 60 such peer-reviewed SARS-CoV-2 studies involving NIH funding published by Fall 2020. Researchers were able to safely move to human vaccine trials as a result of these studies with animals: More than 200,000 human volunteers enrolled in four promising clinical trials. By November, two different companies’ vaccines tested on rhesus macaques were more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in widespread (Phase 3) human clinical trials and soon received emergency FDA approval.
What we’ve learned about HIV and other RNA viruses has lent critical support to the vaccines we now have for COVID-19. Two full generations of NPRC scientists, students, veterinarians, animal caretakers, lab technicians and their collaborators have helped develop life-saving treatments and vaccine candidates to prevent AIDS. Many of these same people are now successfully tackling our COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.
But the research is far from over. In addition to vaccines, we need better therapeutics to treat those who are already battling diseases such as COVID-19, HIV, influenza and other threats. Also, as we know all too well, diseases affect different individuals in different ways. So do treatments. Viruses mutate, jump species barriers and new global infectious diseases emerge every few years. These diseases can not only make us sick, but wild animals and our pets as well.
Research and animal care funding in the United States comes primarily from the National Institutes of Health, as mandated by Congress, and also from patient advocacy foundations and industry. The National Primate Research Centers’ activities are transparent, regulated, reported, shared, published, taught, inspected, constantly improved upon and accessible to anyone who wants to learn more.
Most medical advances have depended on research involving animals along some step of the way. Someday, perhaps we won’t need this research as much as we do today. But until we, our pets, and other animals under our care are no longer vulnerable to the diseases, pain and suffering that can so easily cut our lives short, the fight goes on, with caring and dedication.