Air France announced last week that it would stop transporting non-human primates. The decision will create further problems for biomedical research, which is already facing increasing difficulties in obtaining monkeys. Air France was the last major airline still carrying non-human primates as cargo, as other companies have increasingly refused to do so over the past 2 decades.
The policy change, announced on Twitter, is part of a “perfect storm” for biomedical research using monkeys, says Kirk Leach, executive director of the European Association for Animal Research (EARA). China, a major exporter of primates for scientific research and the supplier of approximately 80% of monkeys used for scientific research in the United States by early 2020, has banned trade in all non-domesticated terrestrial animals since the outbreak of COVID-19, drastically reducing the global supply of primates. Meanwhile, demand for monkeys has soared in recent years, with research into COVID-19 adding to the crisis. And with airlines out of business, the dwindling supply of monkeys is often transported on chartered planes, driving up costs and limiting availability.
Air France announced the decision quietly on June 30 answer in French to another Twitter user’s now-deleted tweet, but Leach says the move has been expected for some time; EARA already plans to tell researchers about the upcoming decision. The tweet said Air France’s ban would take effect “as soon as its current contractual commitments with research organizations expire,” which Leech expects will be before the end of the year. Air France did not respond to Sciencerequest for comment.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) celebrated the decision, saying in a written statement that “Monkeys will be spared enormous suffering as the monkey transport trade has been dealt another blow.” The organization will now focus on Egyptair, a smaller airline that PETA says has flown up to 5,000 monkeys through New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport since March.
But EARA warns that Air France’s decision will further limit important research that relies on non-human primates. Because monkeys are more closely related to humans than rodents, dogs and other research animals, their immune systems and brains are better models for those in humans, says Peter Jansen, a neurophysiologist at KU Leuven who uses monkeys to study blindness and memory. This makes monkeys invaluable for neuroscientific work on diseases such as Alzheimer’s, as well as for vaccine research. Nonhuman primates are often the last species before humans to be tested, and the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency often require monkey studies of drugs before approving them. “Everybody [COVID-19] the vaccine … was tested on non-human primates,” Leach says.
Air France had long refused to bow to pressure from animal rights groups, in part because a board member who had worked in the pharmaceutical industry gave fellow board members a tour of a Sanofi laboratory, convincing them that monkey research is essential and done under humane circumstances, Leach says. The French government also supported the airline’s position. But as other companies dropped out, Air France remained the sole target of the protests.
Air France’s reversal will have the biggest impact in the United States and Europe, the leading importers of the primates — for research and other purposes such as conservation. The airline carries many of the monkeys from Mauritius, which in recent years has become one of the world’s main suppliers by establishing breeding colonies of long-tailed macaques, which were brought to the Indian Ocean island nation as pets but have become an invasive species.
“Ultimately, the way around this problem is to breed them locally” in countries where there is a need for monkeys, Leach says. But this is also likely to face opposition and take nearly a decade to build breeding colonies. Meanwhile, “this shortage will drive innovation out of the sector,” Leach predicted.