Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and southern pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina) have emerged as important model organisms, especially for research on infectious diseases. While not quite as popular with scientists as their cousin, the rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), both species provide unique insights into difficult-to-study viruses, including HIV and SARS-CoV-2. Unfortunately, in July the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated its Red List designations for both species, shifting them from “vulnerable” to “endangered” and putting them three steps away from the final stage of the organization’s seven-step scale, “extinct.” It’s a move that primate experts say is necessary to ensure the animals’ survival in their natural habitats scattered throughout Southeast Asia, but because the IUCN identifies export for the purposes of laboratory experimentation as one of the main threats facing the macaques, biomedical researchers worry that designating the species as endangered could stymie some types of science.
There are obvious reasons for anguish as the natural world experiences a devastating level of species extinction. But for researchers who use animals that are considered useful modules for humans when testing agents for safety and efficacy, there is a growing concern. If a model species go extinct, how do we conduct testing to see whether an agent is safe and effective? Are we facing a future where humans are exposed to agents that have not been tested before they use in humans? This piece published in The Scientist examines the issue.
Lauren Gilhooly, a former anthropologist who studied the effects of ecotourism on wild macaque populations but has since left academia, says it’s past time that the plight of the animals receives the same attention as concerns over whether researchers will be able to do their experiments. “I understand the cost-benefit tradeoff [of] lab research with helping humans and treating disease, but we also have to think about the cost-benefit of using nature as a commodity to help humans,” she says