“We have stopped conducting this business,” Air China declared in an e-mail sent yesterday to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Fewer than 24 hours earlier, the animal-rights group had asked its Facebook and Twitter followers to telephone the air carrier’s cargo office at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, demanding that it stop shipping primates bound for research labs. The company was inundated with phone calls. They followed at least 24,000 e-mails sent to the airline by PETA supporters since 12 July, according to a press release from PETA.
The move by Air China follows a similar announcement last month by Israel’s El Al Airlines, and is part of a larger trend that has seen most major air carriers refusing to fly primates bound for research, as Nature reported in March.
According to Justin Goodman, the associate director of the laboratory investigations department at PETA in Washington DC, Air China’s decision leaves China Eastern as the only major airline known to be flying the animals out of China, the country that ships more than 70% of the non-human primates bound for US labs.
Michael Hsu, the president of the animal-breeding company Shared Enterprises in Richlandtown, Pennsylvania, which maintains a macaque breeding colony in Shanghai, confirmed that Air China has not flown animals out of the country since last week. He says that the result will be to make the flights more expensive, driving up the costs of research and ultimately of therapies.
“Where is the concern for human life that PETA shows for animal life?” Hsu asks, noting that non-human primates are used in research on maladies including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
Hsu also maintains that the ultimate effect of the airline campaign will be to drive the research off of US shores, to countries where it is less well regulated. “This is a lose-lose situation, for the [US] economy, for the research and for the patients,” he says.
The carriers that have stopped transporting primates for research include American, Delta, Lufthansa, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air India. Those under pressure to stop doing so include Air France, Air Canada and Continental Cargo, a subsidiary of United Airlines.