Science: Insurers eye results of genetic tests

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The Independent Online
Is there something nasty lurking in your genes? Life insurance companies would like to know - but a new code of practice says they should not ask. Insurers will go along with that, but there are signs that they would prefer to know more. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, sees a row brewing.

The insurance industry is lining up for a battle with scientists over its insistence that people should reveal the results of genetic testing - despite the recommendation of an independent commission saying they should not.

If insurance companies refuse to comply with the recommendations, the Government may have to step in to force them not to. "We hope very much that the industry will remain self-regulating," said a spokeswoman for the Department of Trade and Industry yesterday. "But the Government could make a statutory order."

The independent Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) recommended in a report to the Government yesterday that there should be a two-year moratorium on the use of genetic test results in assessing people for insurance purposes.

The advance of tests which can identify the presence in blood and saliva samples of various genes giving predispositions to illness - such as breast cancer and other inherited diseases - has caused increasing anxiety both to life insurance companies and the public.

Partly the concern arises because such tests are not yet perfect predictors: the presence of some genes does not guarantee that you will develop a particular illness. By contrast, many simpler medical tests and lifestyle examinations - such as amount of exercise taken and cigarettes smoked - are far better predictors of health.

In a series of statements which excoriated the insurance industry's lack of research into the real usefulness of genetic tests, Sir Colin Campbell, the commission's chairman, said that such testing for insurance purposes should be banned for at least two years. It should only be lifted, he said, when insurers have shown that such tests could actually be useful both to the public and themselves.

"If insurance companies want that moratorium lifted, the onus should lie with them."

But yesterday the Association British Insurers, which had brought forward the release of its own long-delayed code of practice to coincide with the HGAC's, said that people will not be required to take genetic tests when applying for insurance - but results of tests they have already taken should be revealed if a "relevant question" is asked. That is clearly at odds with the HGAC's suggestions.

The ABI also said the code would apply to all types of insurance, including long-term care and medical expenses. That too differs from the HGAC, which said that while its findings applied principally to life insurance, they should apply to other forms too.