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AI shuts door on live animals being carried for tests,scientists go unheard

Animal testing is routinely done in basic biology,physiology,as well as for drug research and the AI decision could affect several ongoing projects in these fields.

In a mysterious order issued on August 23,Air India decided not to carry live animals for experimental purposes any more. Appeals from the scientific community,the Department of Biotechnology secretary and even the head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the prime minister to revoke the “inappropriate”,“unreasonable” and “illogical” order have so far fallen on deaf ears.

A circular issued by Manager Cargo (Operations) in Mumbai two months ago informed duty managers,departure supervisors and all cargo staff “that Air India does not carry ‘Live Animals for experimental purposes’ and this is applicable to both international and domestic sectors”. In view of this,the circular added,“all are hereby advised Not To Accept (emphasis original) ‘Live Animals for experimental purposes’,ensure strict compliance”. The circular does not clarify anything further.

Animal testing is routinely done in basic biology,physiology,as well as for drug research and the AI decision could affect several ongoing projects in these fields.

In a letter to Cabinet Secretary Ajit Kumar Seth,the head of the PM’s Scientific Advisory Council,Prof C N R Rao,wrote: “This is a highly retrograde step and something that has not been done anywhere else in the world… I hope that you can kindly look into this matter.” Rao told The Sunday Express he has not even received an acknowledgement,leave aside a response.

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The official silence is among the things that baffles the scientific community. Pointing out that the order has already hit some of their projects,the National Institute of Immunology (NII)’s Dr Satyajit Rath said he discovered the change in policy purely by accident.

“A shipment of rats from Bangalore was getting delayed and I thought there was some paperwork missing. But then I was told that it cannot be transported at all. When we tried to enquire from Air India,there was no response. A few days later,I chanced upon a small news item in a Bangalore newspaper in which an animal rights group was claiming that Air India had stopped transport of animals for experiments… It is with great difficulty that I could get hold of a copy of the circular. We still don’t know what has prompted this decision,” Rath told The Sunday Express.

A request sent by Secretary,Department of Biotechnology,Dr M K Bhan to AI Chairman-cum-Managing Director Rohit Nandan as well as Civil Aviation Secretary K N Srivastava a month ago to withdraw the order too has not made a difference. Bhan was caustic in his letter: “This decision by any standards of reason and logic is inappropriate and not based on reason or government policy. It may kindly be appreciated that this decision is also against the approved policies of the government and the guidelines of the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research).”

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While Nandan and AI spokesperson did not respond to repeated phone calls,text messages and email sent by The Express,Secretary Srivastava said he was seized of the matter and was keen to resolve it at the earliest.

“I have told the Air India CMD to submit a report on the circumstances which led to this decision. That report should come to me any day now. Then I will sit down with everyone concerned to resolve this issue… I would like to assure the scientific community that we will take a most constructive view… and within a matter of next few days,” Srivastava said.

To be sure,AI is not the only airline in the world with reservations about carrying animals for experiments. Several global airlines carry only specified species,some others have blanket bans. But these policies are very clearly stated. Plus,what complicates the matter in case of India are rules specifying that government shipments must mandatorily be flown on AI wherever the service is available.

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Bhan called the move symptomatic of the way issues of scientific importance are treated in the country. “There is no rational debate,no evidence-based argument… and suddenly a decision like this is taken without any consultation,” he said. “Is it that hard to understand that experiment on animals is integral to drug research? And then everyone asks why are we unable to develop cheaper,efficient and better drugs. Please tell me how the hell am I supposed to do it,and I will do it that way.”

According to the NII’s Rath,“nobody is bothered” apart from paying lip-service to science. “Is the manager of cargo operations of an airline going to decide the scientific policies of this country?” he asked.

One of India’s most celebrated scientists,Rao said he feels helpless. “Frankly,I am tired. The pursuit of science is not a priority in this country. I mean,this is such an illogical and irrational decision,but who do I argue with? My letter does not even get acknowledged.”

First published on: 21-10-2012 at 02:44:46 am
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