Airlines Block Transport of Lab Animals Worldwide | science and technology
Researcher Teresa Giráldez is tired of complaining about the same thing. “It’s unfair, we are totally paralyzed by an arbitrary decision. I have two projects that are seriously affected, but in the long term it will be a real problem, ”protests the scientist from La Laguna University in Tenerife. His problem: laboratory mice cannot fly to the Canary Islands, where around 40 investigations are in danger because of this decision. The refusal of airlines to support laboratory animals is blocking science in the archipelago: without these animals, it is impossible to study diseases such as cancer or epilepsy, or to seek their cures. Iberia and Air Europa first implemented the blockade in 2016, prompting military and congressional interventions to save projects from the brink of ruin. The air blockade experienced an upsurge in March 2021 in the Canary Islands, which went a year without receiving a single mouse. But it’s a global problem that has driven scientists to desperation in Europe and the United States, where the ban is the subject of litigation.
Airlines are under pressure from “ultra-protective animal groups” because they don’t want to be socially criticized, says Javier Guillén, Europe and Latin America director of the Association for the Evaluation and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International. “This does not only affect the Canary Islands, it is an international problem”, he laments. Guillén explains that the big labs are able to charter planes for their expeditions, but “there are sites where this is not possible, the most affected are always the smallest groups… In the Canary Islands, everything is linked, they’re really hurting: the only option left is for politicians to pressure their flagship airlines to continue shipping,” he argues.
The Ministry of Science and Innovation, consulted by EL PAÍS, ensures that “it is crucial to guarantee the normal functioning of the scientific system in all territories” and that “for this it is necessary that the transport chains are not not broken at the extreme periphery”. like the Canary Islands. “The Ministry, as on other occasions, is ready to intervene so that the airlines guarantee the supply chains on which researchers in the Canary Islands rely,” confirms a spokesperson.
In 2016, the first time that investigations into diabetes or strange diseases were paralyzed in the Canary Islands, it came to the point where a military plane was used to circumvent the companies’ air embargo and send four boxes with about thirty dedicated mice to the study of rheumatoid arthritis. Congreve then approved a non-legislative proposal that urged the government to force airlines to transport laboratory animals, with the Partido Popular, which defended business freedom, voting against the measure. Finally, Iberia lifted the embargo. According to the airline group, this was done “exceptionally, to collaborate in the completion of urgent projects”. But IAG Cargo, the group’s matrix for shipments, specifies: “IAG Cargo does not transport live animals intended for laboratories, experimentation or exploitation”, without further explanation.
For Kirk Leech, director of the European Association for Animal Research, it’s a problem of public pressure. The majority of airlines have stopped transporting animals for research, “whether for fear of a widespread boycott of their services by the public or because of insidious activist campaigns…I think the fear is overblown, given the better understanding of the public. animal research, including mice, which has been used to produce vaccines against Covid, ”confirms Leech. Support for these experiments rose to 64% in this context for Americans. “With the issue of the Canary Islands, this appears to be an internal corporate decision unrelated to any public campaign. The airline needs to understand the harm this is causing to research and ultimately to public health” , he says.
United States litigation
Leech explains that only one commercial airline, Air France, is willing to fly primates for research to Europe or the United States. These animals are used exceptionally in specific cases for the development of pharmaceutical products, such as vital vaccines against Covid. Additionally, only a handful of commercial airlines fly smaller animals, such as mice, rats, rabbits or even zebrafish, which are often used in neuroscience and never make it to the Canary Islands.
In the United States, the National Association for Biomedical Research opened a lawsuit in 2018 against four airlines (IAG, owner of Iberia, United, China Southern Airlines and Qatar Airways) for “unlawful discrimination”, given that they carry mice, rats and dogs no problem…unless that mouse, rat or dog is used to try to cure a disease. A few months ago, 90 American universities and scientific societies urged the Department of Transportation to take control of the case
Leech explains that transporting laboratory animals “is a critical part of medical progress for scientists around the world… Without the ability to move them, crucial scientific research that seeks new treatments will be stalled,” he warns. In recent years, the use of animals in scientific experiments has dropped thanks to new laws and awareness. But negative images like the exploitation of animals to develop cosmetics, banned for a decade, persist.
As for the mice that fly to the Canary Islands, these are animals that have been modified to have characteristics that make the investigation more efficient, reducing the number of animals used in the long term. “The administration of the Canary Islands government must speak with the airlines, and the scientific community must offer information and put pressure on the government,” summarizes Leech. In the Canary Islands, they don’t just want to receive model animals, they want to send them: take what happened to Giráldez when scientists at Stanford University became interested in her work, but in the end, she didn’t. couldn’t collaborate with them because of the blockade.
This is what Carlos Navarro, the director of the Canary Islands Research Agency, wants, although he admits that with the airlines he prefers diplomacy and discretion in the face of the media spotlight, after El Dia leaked the news of the new ban. “We spent a few years suffering from this problem. Iberia made an exception with the Canary Islands, but now they force us to explore other alternative ways to establish routes. We all want to have vaccines and cures for our ailments,” he explains. At the moment they are studying the use of small planes and the development of animals within the University of La Laguna.
“All of us who do research are very clear that in the future we will be past the use of animals,” admits Giráldez. She receives money from the European Research Council and other institutions to fund her studies, which improve understanding of brain diseases. “We have very tight controls, but right now animals are crucial: we can only get so far in cell models. To cure diseases, they must be reproduced in a living being,” she explains.
For Guillén, “we are faced with the absurdity that the public money that has been invested in the Canary Islands could be lost because we have no argument on how well we are spending it”. Giráldez agrees: “If the government supports research, as it currently does, there must be institutional support beyond any arbitrary private decision. Research should be privileged. Without these measures, our capacity for scientific development will collapse.