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Airline’s decision to end monkey transports will worsen shortage in research

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Air France announced last week it will stop transporting nonhuman primates. The decision will create additional problems for biomedical research, which already faces increasing difficulty getting monkeys. Air France was the last major airline still carrying nonhuman 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 Leech, executive director of the European Animal Research Association (EARA). China, a major exporter of primates for research and supplier of approximately 80% of the monkeys used for research in the United States until early 2020, banned trade in all nondomesticated terrestrial animals after the outbreak of COVID-19, drastically reducing the global supply of primates. Meanwhile, demand for monkeys has risen in recent years, with COVID-19 research adding to the crunch. And as airlines have dropped out, the dwindling supply of monkeys is often transported by chartered aircraft, raising costs and limiting availability. 

Air France announced its decision quietly in a 30 June reply in French to another Twitter user’s now-deleted tweet, but Leech says the move had been expected for some time; EARA had already planned to tell researchers about the impending decision. The tweet said Air France’s ban would come into effect “as soon as its current contractual commitments with research organizations come to an end,” which Leech expects will be before the end of the year. Air France did not respond to Science’s request for comment.

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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 5000 monkeys through John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City since March.

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But EARA cautions Air France’s decision will further restrict crucial research that relies on nonhuman 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 Janssen, a neurophysiologist at KU Leuven who uses monkeys to study blindness and memory. That makes monkeys invaluable for neuroscientific work on illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease as well as vaccine studies. Nonhuman primates are often the final species before humans in testing, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency often require monkey studies of medicines before they will approve them. “Every [COVID-19] vaccine … was tested on nonhuman primates,” Leech says.

Air France had long refused to give in to pressure from animal rights groups, in part because a board member who had worked in the pharmaceutical industry had given fellow board members a tour of a Sanofi lab, convincing them monkey research was essential and done under humane circumstances, Leech says. The French government supported the airline’s stance as well. But as other companies dropped out, Air France was left as the lone target for protests.

Air France’s about-face will have the biggest impacts in the United States and Europe, the leading importers of primates—for research and for other purposes, such as conservation. The airline transports many monkeys from Mauritius, which in recent years has become one of the world’s main suppliers, having established breeding colonies of long-tailed macaques that were brought to the Indian Ocean island nation as pets but became an invasive species.

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“Ultimately, the way to get around this problem is to breed them locally” in the countries where monkeys are needed, Leech says. But that would likely run into opposition as well, and it would take nearly a decade to build breeding colonies. In the meantime, “this shortage is going to drive out innovation from the sector,” Leech predicts.

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