UK insurers oppose moratorium plea on use of genetic data

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Britain's insurance industry appears to be on a collision course with the government after the industry rejected a proposed two-year moratorium on the use of genetic information in assessing applications for life insurance.

The government's Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) argued in a report just before Christmas that “substantial research” was needed on the actuarial implications of genetics before estimates of health and lifespan could be drawn from genetic tests.

In a policy statement issued a day after the report, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said that its 440 member companies continued to oppose a moratorium.

The association's statement emphasized that the ABI's code of practice states that the results of genetic tests are not needed for most types of health, medical and critical illness insurance, and for life insurance cover below £100,000 (US$165,000) linked to house purchase loans.

But a former member of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, whose report on human genetics two years ago led to the creation of the HGAC (see Nature 376, 202; 1995), promised to press for legislation if the call for a voluntary moratorium was ignored.

“The insurance industry is one of the UK's important industries, and we don't want to damage it,” says the MP. “But we also want to protect the rights of people. If someone becomes uninsurable, they'll have difficulty in certain fields of work, and in buying a house.” In Britain, life insurance is a requirement for some forms of house purchase loan.

The House of Commons science committee gave the insurance industry one year from the publication of its report to come up with proposals on genetic tests, and the HGAC decided to study the issue at its first meeting in February 1997.

Sir Colin Campbell, who chairs the HGAC and is vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, says it is not safe to make predictive statements about genetic tests. “It is far too early to be able to reach any conclusions about how genetic testing can be used to predict life expectancy or the onset of ill-health,” he says. “Genetic testing is in its infancy.”

But Vic Rance, a spokesman for the ABI, says the industry is aware that no genetic test can predict lifespan for most disorders such as heart disease and certain cancers that are caused by a mixture of genes and the environment.

Insurance companies oppose a moratorium as they believe it would be the first step towards a complete ban.

But a spokeswoman for the HGAC says a moratorium is not the same as a ban. “The commission has not at all closed the door on the insurance industry taking in genetic information. They're saying that, in this country, it's too soon.”

Insurance companies consider genetic information to be no different from family history information, which is a condition for some policies. The industry says nondisclosure of genetic test results would enable people with genetic illnesses to take out large insurance policies without having to tell the truth about their health. This is known as ‘adverse selection’.

They also argue that disclosure has benefits for the insured. A negative test for a person with a family history of a disease will enable that person to obtain insurance cover at standard rather than higher rates.

But the commission's report says the industry can withstand limited adverse selection. It also says there is “widespread concern” that people will refuse to take genetic tests if insurance companies are allowed to see the results.

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