‘Patients will lose’ if airlines refuse to transport lab animals: NABR files complaint

By Melissa Fassbender

- Last updated on GMT

(Image: Getty/AlexeyPetrov)
(Image: Getty/AlexeyPetrov)

Related tags Pfizer Novartis AbbVie Charles river laboratories Taconic Biosciences Envigo Animal research

A lobby group has filed a complaint alleging illegal discrimination by airlines refusing to transport lab animals – a battle that will be difficult to win, says an industry expert.

The National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) filed the complaint​ with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) on behalf of its members on August 21, 2018.

The complaint was filed against four airlines – United Airlines​, British Airways​, China Southern Airlines​, and Qatar Airways​ – which NABR said have “illegally discriminated and continue to illegally discriminate against customers who seek to transport animals for purposes of live animal research undertaken at medical and other research facilities.”

The docket​ has received more than 20,000 comments from non-parties. The comment period closed today.

NABR President Matthew R. Bailey said if the DOT chooses not to pursue the complaint, “it will become increasingly challenging to ensure the appropriate models are available for medical research which federal agencies require before drugs and treatments can proceed to human clinical trials.”

“Treatments and cures will be delayed, and ultimately society, as well as the animals we love, will pay the cost,”​ Bailey told Outsourcing-Pharma.

This is the first complaint NABR has brought before the US DOT.

NABR represents more than 360 universities, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as contract research organizations (CROs) and other research institutions.

Airline policy and anti-discrimination regulations

According to a reply​ submitted collectively by the four airlines, an enforcement investigation is not warranted: “The Carriers have provided the Department with all material facts at issue, each stipulating to having a blanket policy disallowing the transport of animals to and from laboratory research facilities,”​ the document signed November 15 reads.

United Airlines said its policy was established “to support sound and safe operational practices and provide the best experience for its customer passengers by minimizing service disruptions from animal rights groups and activists that targeted United for accepting animals destined for research facilities.”

The company also cited “legitimate operational, safety, and business reasons.” ​United currently only transports non-human primates to and from zoos and sanctuaries located in the US and Puerto Rico.

Due to the pending litigation involved, United could not provide additional details, though in an emailed statement the company said, “We believe we are in full compliance with the Department of Transportation’s anti-discrimination regulations and will defend ourselves against this complaint.”

Outsourcing-Pharma also contacted British Airways, China Southern Airlines, and Qatar Airways for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.

Industry sends letters of support

To date, 153 organizations have submitted official letters in support of NABR, including pharma giants Pfizer​, Novartis​, and AbbVie​, as well as the contract research organization (CROs) Charles River​, Taconic Biosciences​, and Envigo​, to name a few.

While advances in non-animal testing methods have been made, current laws and regulations mandate animal research as part of the drug development process – a fact that Novartis noted in its response:

“Researchers must rely on live-animal research to safely develop treatments for both people and animals alike. 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 may be approved for use in humans."

In addition to Novartis, Pfizer and AbbVie also issued the following as part of their response: “We believe that as long as the government requires this research, it should also enforce its laws in a way that does not undermine these essential research requirements.”

The complaint – and several responses – allege the refusal of airlines to transport animals for research purposes is discrimination.

“We do believe that airlines that carry animals for other purposes are required by federal law to carry animals used in lawful scientific research,”​ said Bailey. “It also violates several provisions of federal law, including ones that prohibit unreasonable discrimination and that require airlines to impose reasonable conditions on transport of these animals.”

The complaint also claims that the reason airlines refuse to transport animals for research purposes is “not the result of transportation-related nor safety-related factors,”​ but rather the result of pressure from advocacy groups opposed to live animal research.

“Increasingly, airlines refuse to carry animals destined for research purposes to avoid this political criticism, regardless of legitimate customer needs and important purposes that the animals serve,”​ the complaint reads.

Considering long-term contingencies

Greg Westergaard, CEO of Alpha Genesis – which provides nonhuman primate products and contract research services globally – noted that many commercial airlines “will continue to resist transporting primates, as their primary activity is transporting people to and from their various destinations.”

“Airlines simply do not depend on transporting research animals to meet their business goals and are sensitive to pressure from vocal groups,”​ Westergaard told Outsourcing-Pharma.com.

Westergaard believes NABR is right to support the research community, though he admits this particular battle will be difficult to win, and as such, other long-term contingencies should be considered.

Notably, as China continues to develop its own research infrastructure, Westergaard said the Chinese will have less incentive to export research primates overseas to the US – “and this is already being played out in the form of decreased availability and increased costs,” ​he added.

Westergaard said, “If the US is to maintain its position as a leader in medical research, then it must lessen its dependence on China by further investment in developing its own research infrastructure.”

Bailey echoed this concern, noting that if the transportation of animals used in scientific research becomes more difficult in the US, the likelihood that the research will move to other countries might increase.

“Patients will lose, and peoples’ pets will lose because the development of veterinary medicine also depends on animal research,"​ he said, adding, “It is difficult to understand why airlines would rather shirk their responsibilities to protect the public’s health than do the right thing. I can think of no greater corporate social responsibility than public health.”

As airlines also regularly transport animals for zoos, agriculture, entertainment, and as pets, Bailey also said that these industries should pay close attention, “because if airlines are making decisions based on the word of PETA, which opposes animal use in most of those areas, they very well may be next.”

PETA research associate Jeremy Beckham, MPA, MPH, CPH, said in a statement that the government "should allow the airline industry to look out for its own financial well-being."

"Maintaining a positive corporate image for an airline is critical in this highly competitive industry, and airlines understandably don’t want to be associated with animal experimentation, a practice that is now synonymous in the public mind with cruelty to animals,"​ Beckham told us.

Beckham noted that airlines have already "fended off"​ a similar challenge from so-called "trophy hunters."​ PETA "is confident that [the airlines] will again prevail against another frivolous, desperate legal maneuver by animal abusers," ​he said.

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