Genetic testing for insurance moves closer

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Compulsory genetic testing for insurance policyholders moved a step closer yesterday as the Association of British Insurers said that those who have already taken any such test will have to report its results to the company they want cover from.

The ABI, the industry's trade body, insisted that the new policy reflected existing practice by its members. It said that companies would ignore the results of any genetic tests if they were part of an application to buy a house worth up to pounds 100,000.

Tony Baker, the ABI's deputy director-general, said his organisation's policy was a "carefully considered and responsible contribution to ... new challenges".

But some ABI members, who refused to be named, privately warned yesterday that the statement, which will remain in place for two years, was "the thin end of the wedge". Eventually, genetic testing would be part and parcel of assessing most prospective policyholders' risk profiles.

Ian Reed, general manager at Cornhill, owned by Allianz, the German insurance giant, said: "At this stage in the development of genetic science, it is inappropriate for insurers to be seen as representing a negative element to what promises to be a revolution in the management of serious diseases."

Cornhill said it would refuse to ask for any genetic testing information for any policy under pounds 100,000.

The ABI's statement marks the latest phase in a debate as to whether increasingly sophisticated genetic tests for a range of diseases should be used to deny insurance to those who may be found to have the potential to develop life-threatening illnesses.

Doctors can already diagnose the most common single-gene defects, such as muscular dystrophy. Experts say it will soon be possible to predict the risk of more common disorders, such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, while the prediction of heart disease and cancer may only be a few years away.

Many American companies already require applicants for insurance to undergo genetic testing. But in the United Kingdom, fears have been raised of an insurance underclass, unable to obtain insurance or penalised by a negative genetic test.

The British Medical Association said it was concerned over the continuing use of health information for non-medical purposes.

A spokeswoman said: "The result of a genetic test may give a lot of information about an individual's health. On the other hand, it may give very little information at all.

"For example, a test may indicate a predisposition to a particular disease but the individual may never develop the disease.

"One individual may test positive for a disease without having the disease themselves."

The spokeswoman added: "At the BMA we are worried about the extent to which genetic information, which can be extremely complex, could be misinterpreted.

"We are very pleased that the ABI has clearly stated that they will not be asking anyone to take a genetic test when they apply for life insurance.

"We remain worried about the increasing use of people's health information for non-health issues and would be concerned if people were discouraged from finding out more about their health needs because of fears about the social implications of taking a test."