The Swiss government is trying to pre-empt the outcome of a national referendum calling for major restrictions on genetic engineering — including a ban on the use of transgenic animals — by presenting its own proposals for strengthening the rules governing the use of such techniques.
Known as the ‘Gen-Lex’ motion, the initiative aims to coordinate existing legislation covering a range of activities relating to genetic engineering, and to close any apparent gaps. Scientists, environmentalists and animal rights groups have been asked for their comments.
A national ethics committee is also to be set up in the next few months to address issues relating to the use of animals in genetics research. One of its tasks will be to assess whether proposed experiments using transgenic animals are ethically justified.
The referendum, scheduled for June, was initiated in 1992 by pressure groups opposed to biotechnology. Although widely supported by environmentalists and animal rights activists, it has been strongly opposed by many scientists, who warn that its approval would seriously harm biomedical research in Switzerland, and could persuade pharmaceutical companies to relocate elsewhere (see Nature 388, 315; 1997).
“A general ban on the use of transgenic animals would be disastrous for many Swiss researchers,” says Franco Cavallo, director of the Institute for Oncology in Bellinzona and a socialist member of the Swiss parliament.
Switzerland has no specific regulations on genetic engineering, as this is considered to be covered by a variety of laws in areas such as environmental and animal protection.
A recent survey has shown that three-quarters of the population are opposed to constitutional bans, such as that proposed on the use of transgenic animals. The Gen-Lex motion seeks to build on this aversion to bans by tightening laws designed to ensure that abuses cannot occur.
Although the referendum has firm support from many people, the outcome of the vote is still in doubt. To succeed, it requires the majority of the country's 26 cantons to vote in favour. This is unlikely, according to Cavallo, because there is relatively little opposition to genetic engineering in the French- and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland.
Cavallo also argues that the Gen-Lex motion is too abstract and complex to persuade supporters of the referendum to change their minds. But Peter Mani, a microbiologist who heads the department of gene technology and society at the University of Zürich, is optimistic that the initiative will help to prevent approval of the measures being put to the referendum by reassuring the public that genetic engineering will be strictly controlled. “The opponents have gone too far in their demands,” he says. “Complete bans make the public uneasy.”
He believes that, barring a major accident or other event, time and national conservatism are on the scientists' side. “The Swiss are not likely to choose a radical solution unless some unpredicted scientific disaster happens shortly before the referendum,” he says.
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Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (1998)