Safety scare on eve of mutant virus test

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A NEW pesticide that has been genetically engineered and strengthened with scorpion venom will be sprayed on to a field of caterpillar-infested cabbages in Oxfordshire today despite last-minute warnings about its safety.

The chairman of the government safety committee that approved the experiment was told on Friday that tests at the Oxford Institute of Virology had raised new fears. The pesticide includes a virus that infects caterpillars; the extra genetic material from scorpions releases a nerve poison which also weakens them and stops them feeding, allowing the virus to work more quickly.

The latest data, which had not previously been seen by the safety committee, indicate that the virus could infect many other species as well as the caterpillar pests.

The proposed experiment has caused fierce controversy among scientists over the past three months. The safety committee - the Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment - called a temporary halt after protests from top scientists. These included one of Britain's leading geneticists, Professor Steve Jones, of University College London. Other scientists threatened legal action to stop the test.

But after hearing the evidence the committee decided that the trial is safe to go ahead. On its advice, John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, gave his final consent earlier this month.

Despite being told of the new data, David Bishop, director of the Institute of Virology, on holiday in South Africa, has insisted that the trial is safe to go ahead. John Beringer, chairman of the safety committee, contacted him on Friday.

'I spoke to him three times,' Professor Beringer said yesterday. He reminded Professor Bishop that he was obliged to notify Mr Gummer if new information altered the risk assessment. 'They (the scientists) say it does not, and I believe them. But I haven't seen the data, so am not in a position to say anything.'

Opponents of the test claim the virus, Autographa californica, will be much more risky if it has never previously existed in the wild in the UK. The only evidence that it has, they say, comes from a 30-year-old moth sample preserved in a test tube at Oxford. Its exact origin is unclear; it was collected by a scientist who travelled extensively.

They also say tests at the virology institute on the caterpillar form of around 100 species of butterfly and moth show that 75 per cent are susceptible to the virus, including all fritillaries. 'The host range of this virus seems to be enormous,' said George McGavin lecturer in zoology at Trinity College, Oxford, and assistant curator of entomological collections at the Oxford University Museum. 'All the evidence suggests this is a non-UK organism, whether in its wild or engineered state. Once the viruses get out they will get everywhere.'

Professor Beringer said Professor Bishop had told the safety committee that 'the balance of probability' was that the virus was already native to Britain. He said he was happy for the trial to go ahead today. 'The risk is low anyhow. The only problem would be if an idiot were to vandalise the site. Even if that were to happen, I don't think there would be any risk to the environment.' The site will be watched 24 hours a day to prevent vandalism.