Tests `pose threat of genetic underclass' Insurers `likely to seek gene test data' 4/24point bold headline over lots of spacey

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The Independent Online

Science Correspondent

Genetic testing for fatal illnesses that strike later in life will soon become the norm for people applying for medical and life insurance despite fears that it will create a genetic ``underclass'' of the uninsurable.

Gene tests will be so ubiquitous that people could have them at home by mail-order, according to an analysis published today of why insurers want access to genetic information.

People who use gene tests to make decisions on when to take out insurance will create instability within the insurance industry, Robert Pokorski, an insurer for the firm Swiss Re America in Fairfield, Connecticut, says in the journal Nature.

``Life insurers are beginning to realise that genetic information is relevant to their assessements of mortality risk,'' he says.

``If people use genetic tests to decide when to buy insurance and how much to buy, the insurers will also want to know the results of these tests.''

Dr Pokorski acknowledges there are worries about insurers using genetic tests to invade privacy, to discriminate against those with inherited disorders and to deny cover for those at high risk of fatal illnesses.

But another concern, he says, is that denying the insurance industry access to genetic testing ``could lead to a fundamental restructuring of the life insurance industry and a drastic reduction in the number of people who could afford such cover''.

In its 1993 study of the problems associated with genetic screening, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said the prospect of insurance companies asking for gene tests before issuing a policy, would mean "there would be serious consequences for public policy (including, possibly, for social security)".

The Association of British Insurers said it did not intend to demand genetic tests as a precondition for insurance ``for the foreseeable future'' although it had not ruled it out.

Insurance companies can already ask for the results of genetic tests if these are part of a person's medical record. The industry treats the results in the same way as other medical tests.