GENTECH archive 8.96-97

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EP Debates Bio-Safety



      By Gillian Handyside 

    STRASBOURG, March 12 (Reuter) - The European Parliament called on
Wednesday for stricter safety rules for laboratories experimenting with
modifying the genetic make-up of dangerous micro-organisms like the AIDS or
Ebola viruses. 

    It adopted a report by Greek Christian Democrat Antonios Trakatellis
which insists the European Commission must tighten up the safety aspects of a
proposed new directive on genetically modified micro-organisms (GMMs). 

    Draft directive COM(95)640 updates an existing 1990 directive on GMMs to
take account of progress in the field of biotechnology. 

    In practice, the proposal also downgrades the risk classification of
micro-organisms like AIDS, salmonella and tetanus, making it easier for
laboratories to obtain permission to experiment with them. 

    Parliament said that while it was important to encourage progress in
biotechnology, which is a promising new European industry under fierce
competition from the United States, this should not be at the expense of
human safety or the environment. 

    Amendments introduced by parliament seek to introduce clear guidelines
for judging the risk posed by specific micro-organisms and stricter
authorisation procedures for those in the high risk categories. 

    The parliament demanded that labs experimenting with GMMs should be fully
liable for any accident which harmed humans, animals or the surrounding
environment. 

    They should also ``avoid,'' rather that ``limit,'' as the Commission
suggested, the release of any GMMs into the wild. 

    ``Safety is paramount for the expansion of this technology,'' rapporteur
Trakatellis told reporters after the vote. 

    He said the parliament's report struck a good balance between ensuring
safety and reducing the bureaucratic burden on an industry which promised
astounding advances in the production of vaccines, hormones, proteins and
novel foods. 

    The emphasis on safety was in the industry's interest, he said, because
even a single accident could cause public panic similar to that provoked by
the mad cow crisis. 

    But Trakatellis, himself a professor in biomedicine, warned that unless
the Commission took on all the changes made by parliament, the delicate
balance between safety and flexibility would be upset. 

    In particular, he insisted the Commission must accept the parliament's
guidelines on risk assessment, which are based on internationally used
criteria. 

    ``If you don't accept that, then forget the directive. Risk assessment is
everything,'' Trakatellis said. 

    Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard told the assembly on Tuesday
the Commission could only partially accept some of parliament's key
amendments, including that on risk assessment. 

    She also said civil liability, another key point, was an issue which
covered a whole range of EU laws and would have to be studied in more depth
by the Commission. 

    Trakatellis said he was very surprised Bjerregaard had told parliament
the Commission could not accept Euro-MPs' demand for equal powers with the
Council of Ministers to decide on the directive, which is being dealt with
under the cooperation procedure. 

    If parliament had decided last month not to censure the Commission
immediately for its handling of the mad cow crisis it was in part because
Commission President Jacques Santer had promised three times that all human
health issues would in future be the subject of co-decision, Trakatellis
said. 

11:33 03-12-97