Air France, the last major airline to transport monkeys used in research, announced last week that it will no longer do so, a move likely to exacerbate a pre-existing shortage of lab primates, Science reports. The airline made the announcement informally when it responded to a Twitter post on June 30. Air France has been transporting monkeys from the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, according to Science, but tweeted in French that it will stop “as soon as its current contractual commitments with research organizations come to an end.”
Demand for research monkeys spiked in 2016 after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded multiple grants to study HIV, Nature reports. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sparking more demand and prompting China to ban their export; China had been supplying nearly 80 percent of monkeys used for research in the US until early 2020, according to Science.
“In the accelerated effort to develop Covid-19 vaccines, monkeys played a critical role in ensuring the safety and efficacy of all the successful vaccines that are now in widespread use,” says Kirk Leech, executive director of the European Animal Research Association (EARA), in a statement responding to Air France’s decision. The statement describes the restricted access to monkeys as “a perfect storm” for the biomedical sector that will “severely” limit research progress in developing life-saving medicines.
A news release from the nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) celebrates the announcement and states that the organization will now shift its attention to Egyptair, which the organization claims has transported 5,000 monkeys to the US via New York since March of this year.
“Ultimately the way to get around the problem is to breed [monkeys] locally” in countries that use them in biomedical research, Leech tells Science. Until then, he predicts that “this shortage is going to drive out innovation from the sector.”