Legal fight planned to halt scorpion toxin test

LEGAL ACTION is being considered to stop tests of a pesticide carrying a scorpion toxin gene.

Scientists opposed to the release of the genetically-engineered virus in an Oxfordshire field will seek legal advice today on a challenge, by judicial review in the High Court, to the Government's permission for the test.

'I think the experiment should be put on hold,' said George Smith, the Oxford scientist who is co-ordinating the protests. 'The Government is manipulating the rules. The way they are dealing with this appears to go against EC regulations governing the releases of manipulated organisms.'

The test, planned to take place within weeks, involves spraying the genetically engineered virus on to young cabbages carrying caterpillar pests. Opponents, including leading British scientists, fear the virus will escape into the environment, either through vandalism or via predators of the caterpillars.

If the modified virus infected species other than its targets, or combined with wild viruses, the effects on delicate ecosystems are unknown, the opponents say. They are particularly anxious about the much-prized Whytham Woods near by.

Civil servants responsible for dealing with objections sent detailed information on the experiment to the scientists only on the same day - 31 March - that the Government's safety advisers approved the experiment.

Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, and one of those objecting to the planned trial, said yesterday: 'What annoyed me most about the proposal is something you often see from government scientists, a 'nanny knows best' attitude. They say the virus is not going to escape. If you look at the proposal that's clearly not true. They can by no means guarantee that this sodding virus is going to stay there.'

Some of the safety advisers who examined the proposal from the Natural Environment Research Council's Institute of Virology are also known to be uneasy over aspects of the experiment. In documentation prepared for the Department of the Environment, David Bishop, who is leading the research, described risks associated with the release as 'minimal' and at one point as 'zero'. He has since conceded that 'nothing is going to be 100 per cent foolproof' - a point that the objecting scientists say is common sense.