Cambodian monkey exports to Canada for lab tests are surging, fueling Canadian health concerns – Southeast Asia Globe

Cambodian monkey exports to Canada for lab tests are surging, fueling Canadian health concerns - Southeast Asia Globe

A significant U.S. medical research firm was subpoenaed in 2023 by U.S. investigators because of unique monkey shipments it had received from an admitted “international animal smuggling ring” originating from Cambodia.

Charles River Laboratories agreed to work with U.S. Department of Justice leaders and suspended supplies of monkeys from Cambodia to its U.S. laboratory.

But as one way for the medication- testing monkeys shut over, another opened wider – from Cambodia to Charles River’s labs in Quebec, Canada.

Long-tailed lemurs are now being imported into Canada for individual drug testing in extraordinary numbers thanks to large captive walls in provinces close to Phnom Penh, according to an investigation by the Southeast Asia Globe, Pulitzer Center, and Toronto Star.

Federal information shows that the value of American exports of these endangered animals has increased nearly six times since Charles River’s announcement in February 2023 to cease animal imports to the United States. The only Canadian company that has a documented importation of lemurs from Cambodia is Charles River.

Chimps are farmed in large containers in Cambodia, a key global supplier of the monkeys

Concerns have been raised that Canada has then inherited a deteriorated supply chain that includes protected species such as wild long-tailed macaques, which may contain dangerous pathogens. &nbsp,

” While they ‘re]Charles River ] doing the right thing in the U. S., they’re doing the wrong thing in Canada”, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary medicine expert and professor emeritus at Tufts Veterinary School in Boston. ” It’s a kind of back door…They can still do their research, just not in the United States”.

A Charles River spokesperson stated in a statement that the company meets with all American laws and that it has made sure” no members of the public have been exposed to any health or health challenges from our services.”

The company said its facilities in Canada are part of its “global network” that includes” state- of- the- art operations in over 20 countries”. Following the subpoena, Charles River’s CEO called investors and stated that the company had quickly changed its monkey shipments to nations with “friendly governments” who are “working with us.”

Poached macaques allegedly entered the United States illegally.

Experts and advocates for captive angling raise questions about how adequately the authorities here have handled those imports.

Officials from Canada point to numerous quality control measures in place to ensure the importation of macaques. However, agents in the exporting nations have a significant burden of oversight, including two Cambodian government officials, who were charged under the same U.S. investigation that sparked the international scandal that caused Charles River to lose value.

Charles River has only been subpoenaed and is not facing any charges.

The small, docile test subjects are used in Charles River’s lab research, including the development of a COVID- 19 vaccine. According to international standards, animals used in this research are supposed to be captive bred.

According to the 2022 indictment, thousands of imported wild macaques were poached and laundered in the United States as part of the captive-bred trade. Since 2018, officials believe that about 2,600 wild macaques have been residing in the United States on false permits.

The same year of the indictment, the status of long- tailed macaques on the Red List of Threatened Species was upgraded to “endangered”. According to the threat report, “biological resource use” was cited as a major factor in the decline of macaques in the wild.

There are good reasons why laboratory animals should not be captured from the wild, says Andrew Knight, veterinary professor of animal welfare at Australia’s Griffith University.

” Scientifically, their genetic composition, and their health or disease status, may be unknown or variable, which can make experimental results less reliable”, he says. ” Additionally, there are major animal welfare concerns when primates are captured from the wild, or transported from breeding centres close to wild populations”.

A wild long- tailed macaque infant clings to its mother in Cambodia’s Phnom Sampov, Battambang

” Human health and animal welfare is paramount”

According to Lisa Jones- Engel, a senior science advisor with the U.S. activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ( PETA ), Canadian regulators should pay more attention to the importation of macaques because of the alleged issues U.S. investigators discovered as well as because Cambodian monkeys may carry diseases.

” Charles River…went just to the north to Canada and not only did ( Canadian officials ) not shut it down, but it appears they threw the borders wide open, rolled out the red carpet”, she said. ” And Canadian officials are ignoring the fact that monkeys exported from Cambodia have been carrying pathogens that not only pose a deadly zoonotic risk, but the presence of these pathogens further undermines and misplaces the use of these monkeys in experiments.”

This primate trade is characterized by the “highest risk of zoonotic disease transmission,” according to Jones- Engel in a letter to Ottawa officials in May, warning that Canadian residents may be paying the price for this industry’s hazardous practices.

She claimed for the Globe that the possibility of wild-caught monkeys entering the supply chain “means that this industry is more likely to usher in the next pandemic than to prevent it.”

We may create or import animals that contain infectious agents that can spread disease to people.

Charles River Laboratories

A recent case study by U. S. researchers tied a case of melioidosis, an infectious disease that can affect both humans and animals, to a Cambodian macaque imported to the U. S. in January 2021. &nbsp,

The animal was not imported by Charles River, the company said.

Charles River said in a statement that it respects the viewpoints of “groups and individuals who vehemently oppose the use of animals in human drug testing.”

” However, any factual and accurate assessment of Charles River’s conduct of such drug testing would come to the conclusion that our commitment to both human health and animal welfare is crucial. We have no doubt that those whose lives have been saved or significantly improved by the drugs we’ve contributed to develop will concur with us.

In addition to COVID vaccines, the company develops drugs to treat cancer, diabetes and rare diseases.

The company did not respond directly to questions about whether wild-caught monkeys could have been included in their Canadian supply chain. In a 2020 form to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Charles River noted that “We may create or import animals that contain infectious agents that can spread disease to people.,” which “could be a possible risk of human exposure and infection.” 

The company claims that Canadian authorities regularly monitor the company’s strict protocols, which include a 30-day quarantine for imported primates and required disease testing. &nbsp,

Officials in Canada echo Charles River and claim to closely monitor the primates to protect the public. &nbsp,

Dodman, the expert in veterinary medicine, is less certain.

” Grabbing a monkey out of a tree and shipping them to a lab, you’re asking for a health crisis”, he says. Who knows how long these diseases can survive without taking any precautions, and how long do they usually wait before developing a virus?

Oversight depends on permits issued in Cambodia.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC ) monitors the importation of lab animals. &nbsp,

The United Nations-run Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species ( CITES ) serves as a resource for the federal government’s efforts to properly vet the animals ‘ origin and ensure there is no harm to the species ‘ wild population. &nbsp, &nbsp,

The authorities in Ottawa stated that they are concerned about ensuring that the incoming animals have CITES permits issued by authorities in the country of origin.

The CITES Management Authority in Cambodia, which is led by Masphal Kry and Omaliss Keo, the two senior Cambodian officials who are charged with violating the U.S. Department of Justice, is responsible for obtaining the permits that Canadian officials claim they rely on.

Kry is the only person to have gone on trial so far, and he was detained in the United States in November 2022 while traveling to a convention on the international trade of endangered species. He was found not guilty of smuggling and conspiracy to smuggle on March 22. His attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite the indictment, Keo is still listed as the CITES chairman for “terrestrial forest and wildlife resources” in Cambodia. When reached, Keo did not answer specific questions, but responded,” I thank]you] for your email and appreciate your asking ( for clarification ) and finding truth. I will respond as soon as possible”.

Upon Kry’s verdict and return to Phnom Penh, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries released a statement that read” This misrepresentation]the arrest of Kry ] was based on evidence obtained via improper investigations, concealed from Cambodian authorities, and contravening normal practices of cross- border law enforcement norms”.

The press release continued that the allegations against Cambodia regarding the long-tailed macaque trade had no supporting evidence and were based on untrue claims made by some individuals or NGO personnel, distributed through local unprofessional media, and used Western mainstream media to discredit Cambodian officials and influence the court’s decision.

Six officials associated with Vanny Bio- Research, a major exporter of long-tailed macaques bred for use in research, are also facing charges. In a statement, the company said it” denies any wrongdoing.”

The allegations by U. S. prosecutors carry significant implications, said Sarah Kite, co- founder of the international advocacy group Action for Primates, adding that they” raise serious questions regarding how widespread this smuggling operation was — and may continue to be — in Cambodia.”

Vanny Bio- Resource’s expansive monkey farm in Cambodia’s Pursat Province

” By continuing to allow the importation of long- tailed macaques from Cambodia, Canada may be… contributing substantially to the cruelty of trapping, and the decimation of the species in the wild,” Kite continued.

Monkey shipments pivoted to ‘ friendly’ countries

Since the indictment, redacted letters from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been the subject of at least two re-export requests for live long-tailed macaques and biological specimens. However, the U.S. government has not officially imposed a ban on the import of Cambodian monkeys.

Pierre Verreault, executive director of the Canadian Council on Animal Care, which inspects Charles River facilities and other Canadian labs to ensure animal welfare, says the U. S. government’s probe is a key way to find out whether the supply chain is tainted”. Hopefully, if there’s something wrong there, it will stop.”

In the meantime, Charles River’s movement of macaque importations away from the U. S. has had no significant impact on operations, CEO James Foster said in a September conference call with investors.

While the indictment” was very concerning,” the company pivoted to its” international footprint, which is quite large, we have got great facilities all over.”

” We have friendly governments…working with us… We’re not going to pivot back to the U. S…The preponderance will be done elsewhere,” Foster said.

Shareholders of Charles River are also suing the company for class action. The plaintiffs contend that the company “made materially false and/or misleading statements” and “did not disclose” that it had engaged in illegal activity in relation to the importation of non-human primates for research, including relying on “unpreferable suppliers of animals from Cambodia.”

As a result of the company’s” precipitous decline in market value “following the subpoena, shareholders have suffered” significant losses and damages,” the claim alleges.

Charles River did not respond to inquiries regarding the legal action. The company, which responded to the allegations in a court filing, denied making any false claims and claimed to have “regularly warned investors of the risks of supply interruption” and the need to rely on alternative suppliers.

The response reads,” Charles River expressly warned investors about the risk of disruption to its supply of macaques and about the possibility that its operations may not adhere to laws, including those governing the importation of macaques.” Charles Rivers ‘ warning that it might be required to source goods from “non-preferential” vendors shows that the business was being open and not trying to deceive the market.

Charles River has requested that the court drop the civil claim.


The Toronto Star and Southeast Asia Globe collaborated on this article, and The Pulitzer Center‘s Rainforest Investigations Network contributed financially.