Harvard scientist calls U.S. airlines’ refusal to carry research animals ‘threat to American healthcare’.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal 17/09/2019, written by Richard T. BornProfessor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School,

Professor Born was commenting on the formal complaint lodged with the US Department of Transportation, by the biomedical sector, against four airlines – British Airways, China Southern, Qatar Airways and United Airlines.

“Transporting medical research animals by air is essential to the development of new medicine. However, most commercial airlines and air freight carriers have given in to pressure from animal rights activists and have refused to transport research animals. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has an opportunity to right this wrong by making clear that airlines may not discriminate when transporting animals.  Existing federal laws make this clear. This discriminatory practice of refusing to fly animals intended for scientific research on commercial airlines poses a direct threat to various aspects of American life, including the advancement of American healthcare, and potentially the health of the American public as a whole, as well as that of their pets.

Most major U.S.-based commercial airlines including United[1], American,[2] Delta[3], and Virgin Atlantic[4], and a number of international air carriers that include British Airways, China Southern Airlines, and Quatar Airways[5] have given in to pressure from the outspoken organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in their aggressive campaign against airlines that transport research animals. Similarly, most major air freight carriers including DHL, UPS and FedEx  have refused to transport animals for vital scientific research[6]. The same airlines, however, transport animals for non-research purposes, such as for zoos or as pets, or in the form of service animals; and most recently, some airlines allowed for the transportation of service animals as large as miniature horses.

At Harvard, researchers work with animals to conduct basic and clinical scientific studies as well as anatomic, metabolic and behavioral studies to generate new knowledge which could benefit both humans and animals.

Researchers rely on responsibly conducted and extensively monitored research on living animals in order to develop safe and effective treatments for both people and animals. Access to live-animal subjects is required in order to conduct this revelatory work. At the same time, current laws and regulations mandate this kind of research before life-saving medicines and treatments can be approved for use in humans.

As long as the government requires this research, it must enforce existing laws that prohibit discrimination against shipment of cargo that is done in compliance with the law.  The International Air Transportation Association has stated that “In today’s world, carriage of live animals by air is considered the most humane and expedient method of transportation over long distances.[7]” Therefore, the current position taken by many airlines is not only in violation of law, it threatens the progress of key research which could reduce or eradicate diseases.

Most notably, the inactivated (killed) polio vaccine (IPV) was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk and first licensed for use in the U.S. in 1955, and a few years later a live attenuated (weakened) oral polio vaccine (OPV) was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin and became available in 1961. The essential role of animal research in creating these vaccines was underscored by Professor Albert Sabin’s 1956 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association where he stated:  “[These studies] were necessary to solve many problems before an oral polio vaccine could become a reality.”

Unless we address the threat this discrimination presents to the advancement of healthcare, the continued and future growth of medical knowledge in America is likely to suffer.  Restrictions on animal research will halt the development of medications and therapies, and, in response, the production and generation of life-saving treatments intended for public use will stagnate.

According to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, the United States is the largest market for biopharmaceuticals, accounting for around a third of the global market, and we are the world leader in biopharmaceutical R&D. U.S. firms conduct over half of the world’s R&D in pharmaceuticals ($75 billion) and hold the intellectual property rights on most new medicines. The overall economic impact of the biopharmaceutical industry on the U.S. economy is substantial. The industry accounted for more than $1.3 trillion in economic output, representing 4 percent of total U.S. output in 2015 alone. This total economic impact includes $558 billion in revenue from biopharmaceutical businesses and $659 billion from suppliers and worker spending. 

Unsuspecting Americans who are unaware of such discrimination against medical research animals will be the ones who suffer the most, as the prices of medications skyrocket and their development and production costs increase in response to complications within the development process.

The U. S. Department of Transportation should enforce existing laws, require airlines to eliminate policies which discriminate against animal transportation, and base carriage regulations solely on the facts. And the fact is that the transportation of animals is safe, legal, legitimate, necessary and essential for life-saving biomedical research.

This is an issue that should not be delayed. The health of the American people requires action on the part of the DOT immediately, to protect and uphold the American principles of prosperity and wellbeing.

As a broader policy matter, if airlines are allowed to discriminate against the shipment of cargo based solely on the political views of some, where will this end?  The free flow of goods in commerce will become subject to the political whims of a few that control these transportation services.”

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1 https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/10/airlines-fight-effort-force-them-carry-lab-animals

2 https://www.aacargo.com/learn/animals.html

3 https://www.deltacargo.com/Cargo/catalog/accepted-animals

4 https://www.aircargonews.net/airlines/virgin-atlantic-cargo-calls-for-ethical-standards-for-airfreight/

5 https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=DOT-OST-2018-0124-0001

6 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fedex-and-ups-commit-to-not-ship-research-mammals/

7 https://www.iata.org/whatwedo/cargo/live-animals/Pages/index.aspx

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