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Researchers Take Action to End Airlines’ Restrictions on Lab Animals

United Airlines, British Airways, China Southern Airlines, and Qatar Airways face a formal complaint over their refusal to transport animals for scientific research.

Sep 21, 2018
Katarina Zimmer

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In a recently filed complaint to the US Department of Transportation, the National Association for Biomedical Research accuses four major airlines of illegally discriminating against customers wishing to fly animals destined for the lab. The practice is unlawful, the complaint argues, because the airlines agree to carry the same species for zoos, pets, and other purposes.

“The prohibition on the carriage of research animals [slows] down the progress of essential and life-saving research that is necessary for drugs, treatments, cures and the prevention of disease,” writes National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) President Matthew Bailey in an email to The Scientist

For instance, Pennsylvania-based Covance Research Products, a contract research organization that imports animals from Asia, has to rely on “only a select few airlines continuing to offer very limited, and often circuitous, routes that add time and cost,” according to the complaint. 

Within the US, animals are transported by truck, because domestic airlines refuse to do so. This can take days, raising “both costs and the risk to the animals’ welfare during transport,” the document states. 

Many airlines have declined to transport nonhuman primates to research facilities for years now. According to Nature, in 2010, only one US-based airline was continuing to do so. In addition to the four airlines being addressed in the complaint, the document lists nearly 30 others that have similar policies, including American Airlines, Emirates, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines.

“United does not accept certain animals—e.g. nonhuman primates—destined for scientific research,” confirms Gudrun Gorner, a public relations manager for United Airlines, to The Scientist in an email, although she did not explain why. She defends the policy as being nondiscriminatory.

NABR alleges that these policies have been adopted not for safety- or transport-related reasons, but to avoid public criticism of animal research. “Unfortunately, opponents to animal research have engaged in tactics of harassment, protests, and public smear campaigns in an effort to end the transportation of vital research animals involved in health studies worldwide,” Bailey adds. 

Indeed, decisions made by China Southern Airlines and others to end the shipment of primates to laboratories have been widely celebrated by animal rights organization PETA.  

Several institutions have filed letters of supports for NABR in its complaint, including Harvard University’s office of animal resources, the University of New Mexico’s health sciences center, and the Society for Neuroscience.

“In Europe, there are similar problems with airlines refusing to carry animals used for research,” writes Kirk Leech, executive director of the European Animal Research Association, to The Scientist in an email. “We support NABR and believe it was left with no choice but to take this drastic action.” 

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