COVID Research Monkeys Destined for Miami Spur First Amendment and Animal Rights Battle

An attempt to ship lab monkeys destined for COVID-19 vaccine research from Africa to Florida reportedly set off a secretive legal battle over animal rights and First Amendment issues.

Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko on Tuesday unsealed records in a legal dispute centered on the cancellation of a lab monkey shipment to Miami in July, according to The Miami Herald. Shipping company International Logistics Support launched a pair of lawsuits against air carrier Skybus Jet Cargo over shipments that had been set to go to both Florida and California.

The paper reports that Skybus was pressured by animal rights advocates to drop the Florida shipment, leading to a legal dispute over a $500,000 deposit. The case was hidden from the public in a "secret docket" in an attempt to "avoid substantial injury to innocent third parties" that the logistics company described as "minor children," although no human children were involved. Butchko reportedly described the reference to children as a "scrivener's error" during Tuesday's court hearing.

The confidential status of the case was challenged by First Amendment advocate and paralegal Michael Barfield, who filed the motion to unseal the court records, according to the paper. However, Butchko said she had sealed the records so that the logistics company could seize an airplane from Miami International Airport before Skybus had an opportunity to move it. She said the records had been unsealed because the plane had been successfully seized.

Baby Lab Monkey
A baby lab monkey watches while being examined by employees at the National Primate Research Center of Thailand on May 23, 2020. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty

The logistics company's second lawsuit against Skybus concerned a planned shipment of monkeys to researchers in California. The shipment was reportedly canceled due to "a campaign of harassment and intimidation" from "certain political activist organizations." An attempt to seal court records in the case was unsuccessful.

During an informal hearing in September, it was reportedly revealed that International Logistics Support eventually spent $700,000 for another air carrier ship the monkeys destined for Florida. It is not clear what happened to the shipment of monkeys meant for California.

Research monkeys have been in increasingly short supply as pharmaceutical companies race to find a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. The problem was exacerbated when China, which had been the source of the majority of monkeys used in U.S. research, halted exports of lab animals following the initial outbreak of the virus, according to The Globe and Mail.

Although animal rights activists have denounced the use of monkeys in research as cruel, inhumane and unnecessary, researchers insist that the primates are vital for vaccine development because their physiology closely resembles humans. They have been used in the development of multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates that are now being tested on humans, including the candidate from Pfizer, which recently announced promising trial results.

Monkeys are likely to be involved in further efforts as COVID-19 continues to surge around the world with no clear end to the pandemic in sight. The virus has been spreading at record rates in the U.S., with well over 100,000 new cases per day. Global deaths due to the virus have reached nearly 1.3 million, with the U.S. quickly approaching 250,000.