COVID-19 takes center stage at U.S. primate center

On 500 acres near a small town in Louisiana north of New Orleans, about 5,000 monkeys climb and lounge around an enclosure.

Many of the primates, mostly rhesus monkeys, at the Tulane National Research Center are designated for scientific research on COVID-19.

The facility, with high-level biosecurity laboratories capable of handling biological threats such as anthrax, was well positioned to move quickly to COVID-19 research when the coronavirus pandemic broke out.

The DNA and physiological properties of primates make them ideal models for human comparison in the study of disease, said Skip Bohm, assistant director and senior veterinarian at the Tulane Center.

“Non-human primates are really crucial for us not only to understand the disease and its effects on the organism, but also to compare treatments, therapies and vaccinations,” Bohm told Reuters.

Rhesus monkeys, the most common species of primate used in scientific research, make up the bulk of the center’s breeding colony and the 200 adults used in its coronavirus experiments last year.

The centre’s COVID-19-related studies include a study published in the National Academy of Sciences’ scientific journal in February that found older people with high body mass index and more severe COVID-19 infection more breath droplets exhaled, causing them to be called “super-spreaders.”

Primates were the core of the study, said Chad Roy, study co-author and director of the Center for Aerobiology for Infectious Diseases.

As part of future work, the center plans to study “Long COVID”, the incidence of 1 in 10 diagnosed patients who remain ill long after their acute infection.

“There are many different therapeutics to come online and test and with the network we have we can compare one treatment to another,” said Center Director Jay Rappaport, referring to the facility’s role in coordinating the treatment COVID-19 work by the seven US primate research centers.

Once the experiments are complete, the Tulane center will euthanize the monkeys to take tissue so that researchers can study the effects of COVID-19 beyond the respiratory system.

Kathy Guillermo, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said primates should not be used for testing.

“You wouldn’t have to kill it if you weren’t using it,” she said. “What we will learn from value will be what we learn from people.”

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