No monkey business: How researchers tracked and captured simians for covaccine trials

New Delhi, 14 November

Twenty rhesus macaque monkeys used during trials of Covaxin were found near Nagpur as they moved deep into Maharashtra’s forests after losing their usual urban food sources due to the COVID lockdown in 2020, a new book says. Had gone.

In ‘Going Viral: Making of Covaccine – The Inside Story’, Dr. Balram Bhargava, Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) talks about India’s journey of indigenous vaccines.

The book also touches on the intricacies of science and the challenges faced by Indian scientists during the fight against COVID-19, from development of a strong laboratory network, diagnosis, treatment and serosurvey to new technologies and vaccines.

Bhargava says it’s important to remember that the protagonists of Covaxin’s success story aren’t just humans because the 20 monkeys are “partly responsible for the fact that millions of us now have a life-saving vaccine”.

“Once we knew the vaccine could generate antibodies in small animals, the next logical step was to test it on larger animals such as monkeys, which were comparable to humans in terms of their body composition and immune systems,” They write in the book. Published by Roopa.

Used in medical research around the world, rhesus macaque monkeys are considered the best non-human primates for such studies.

Bhargava says the ICMR-National Institute of Virology’s Biosafety Level 4 laboratory, the only state-of-the-art facility in India for primate studies, has once again taken up the challenge of conducting this important research.

But there was a hurdle: where to get the monkeys since there are no laboratory-bred rhesus macaques in India?

Researchers from the National Institute of Virology (NIV) contacted several zoos and institutions across India to find something with no luck.

“Just to make things more difficult, they needed young monkeys with a good immune response, as some of the aging monkeys were unsuitable for NIV,” says Bhargava.

“A dedicated team from ICMR-NIV traveled to areas in Maharashtra to identify sites for capturing the animals. The macaques that had lost their usual urban food sources due to the lockdown had gone deep into the forests. The Maharashtra Forest Department helped track the monkeys by scanning several square kilometers of forests to track them, before finally finding them near Nagpur,” he writes.

However, he added that protecting experimental animals from SARS-CoV-2 was another challenge before starting preclinical studies.

“As animals can be infected from humans, all caregivers, veterinarians and other sanitation workers were screened weekly for SARS-CoV-2, and strict prevention protocols were to be followed,” he says. Huh.

The next challenge was to conduct large animal experiments at the NIV’s high-security control facility.

“To begin with, this requires critical infrastructure (bronchoscope, X-ray machine, suitable habitat for monkeys), training the team, developing protocols, standardizing procedures such as bronchoscopy in macaques, and necropsy,” they write.

“There were too many balls in the air and we couldn’t afford to drop anyone. We had to plan very carefully. It was difficult to do these experiments in a positive pressure suit for 10-12 hours without food and water,” he says after the research.

“In the end, everything turned out well. The monkey business was complete, and the participants of both species who made it possible deserve more praise than we could have given them,” he says.