It has been three years since the outbreak of Covid-19, and as of January 3, 2023, there have been more than 655 million confirmed cases globally, with over 6.6 million deaths.

If HIV/AIDS were excluded, the death toll from Covid would be the highest of all the pandemics of the past century.

In fact, the situation would be a lot worse if Covid vaccines were not developed and administered globally at such a record-breaking pace.

To date, more than 13 billion doses of vaccine have been administered, and a recent study conducted by Imperial College London estimated that vaccinations helped avert 19.8 million deaths during the first year of vaccinations alone.

While the global scientific community has been praised by many for their tireless efforts in the battle against the pandemic, perhaps the most overlooked and undervalued factor in this battle has been lab animals – non-human primates in particular – which have been essential to its success.

Non-human primates (NHPs) – an essential component in drug discovery process

Prior to the use of vaccines in human trials, testing on non-human primates is required by regulatory authorities worldwide to ensure the safety, quality and efficacy of these new therapies being developed.

According to experts of the European Commission, “no other animal species is as close to humans in their anatomy or in the way they respond to drugs, primates may be preferred over other mammals to test the safety of certain drugs … [and] studies on primates are more likely to identify possible hazards to humans”.

The scientific industry has been seeking alternative models to reduce the use of lab animals, and some technological break-throughs, despite being in the early stages of development, have shown promising results.

Additional resources and efforts are expected to be deployed in this area with the approval of the US FDA Modernization Act 2.0 last December; however, NHPs remain a core component of the drug discovery process today.

This is not only limited to the research into Covid-19 vaccines, but also applicable to a wide range of new drug research into HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s oncology, cell and gene therapies, among others.

Nevertheless, the contributions that NHPs have made to society in the recent past and in the foreseeable future, should be more widely acknowledged – they are truly unsung heroes.

Cambodia plays major part in global development of new drugs

While Cambodia is perhaps best known for its garment industry, which accounts for the majority of the country’s exports, few may know that the Kingdom also plays a major role in the global development of new drugs.

Out of the ~30,000 NHPs that the US imports for the use of scientific research and drug development each year, ~19,000 NHPs – more than half of total US imports – came from Cambodia.

In the context of Covid-19, the exact number of NHPs that went into the development of vaccines is unknown, but considering there are 375 pre-clinical and clinical studies related to such vaccines globally, based on the World Health Organization’s database, and with a typical toxicology study requiring 30-40 animals, some argue that the figure would not be insignificant.

In this regard, Vanny Cambodia – a NHP breeding farm established in Cambodia in 2000 – would like to take the opportunity to shed some light on how these animals are bred and the importance of captive breeding in ensuring a sustainable future for the scientific industry in the long term.

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