Poliomyelitis vaccine. Surgical treatment of macular degeneration. The potential of paraplegics to walk again. Treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Antivirals to treat or prevent HIV. Vaccines against covid19.

Each of these life-saving medical advances is rooted in research involving non-human primates, most often apes. Yet the scientists conducting this critical work have been harassed and threatened. We face calls for research on primates to be limited or even banned, which would have disastrous scientific consequences. These voices are few in number, but they are strong and the potential costs of listening to them are high.

Non-human primates will be essential to our efforts to understand the long-term effects of Covid-19. Estimates suggest that 10-30% of individuals may experience a long period of Covid after initial recovery. The National Institutes of Health must fund research that seeks to explain the neurological impacts of long Covid, and that must include projects using non-human primate models.

In the scary early days of the pandemic, infectious disease experts turned to primate research to understand how the disease attacked the body, and then to develop the Covid-19 vaccine. As early as May 2020, studies were published show that primates could develop immunity against Covid-19, establishing in record time that vaccines could be an effective tool to control the spread of SARS-CoV2. More than a dozen candidate vaccines have been tested in monkeys to determine their safety and effectiveness. Critically, the scientists built on previous research that showed an mRNA vaccine offered protection to primates against the Zika virus. This past experience helped lay the groundwork for the development of Covid-19 mRNA vaccines, the fastest vaccines ever created.

Going forward, primate research will help us understand whether specific groups, such as the elderly, are more likely to develop long Covid. My team and others have early research suggesting that the virus can travel to the brain through a person’s nose and potentially cause lasting neurological problems, such as brain fog, loss or distortion of smell, anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating and headaches, as reported in patients. Even more worrying is the risk that the pandemic will lead to an increase in cases of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Powerful monkey models of Covid-19 will be needed to sort out such a potential link.

We are only at the very beginning of understanding the long Covid, and we must put all of our tools — including increased federal funding — to work on unraveling its mysteries. Providing additional federal funding for non-human primate research will help accelerate this critical research, giving us much-needed answers about the long Covid sooner.

My colleagues and I are committed to conducting our research in an ethical and humane manner. Over the four decades that I have conducted primate research, our protocols have continually evolved to improve the welfare of monkeys. They live in public housing, except in rare cases where scientific protocol requires isolation. We are careful to respect and maintain the natural hierarchies of the colonies. We provide them with food supplements and dental and eye care, and we work to reduce their stress levels. Additionally, before any research on non-human primates can take place, it must be approved by an institutional animal care and use committee, a committee of veterinarians, scientists, and lay members of the community.

What hasn’t changed since I started my career in primate research? Apes’ similarities to humans continue to make them essential partners in our quest for new discoveries directly relevant to human health. More than 100,000 patients with Parkinson’s disease have benefited from deep brain stimulation, a therapy developed through research on monkeys. What’s more, researchers have even implanted electrodes in the brains and spines of paralyzed monkeys, allowing them to walk again. This research is already being applied to humans, potentially enabling paraplegics to walk. What was once considered impossible could become standard medical procedure.

For us to achieve this bright future, we must recruit the best young scientists to join the field, and not fear that they will be vilified for conducting vital research. We need the support of lawmakers who rightly announce life-saving medical advances every day.

Anything else risks missing out on vital advances that could benefit millions of people around the world.

Photo: BeritK, Getty Images