Objectors win delay of scorpion virus trial

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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT scientists called a halt yesterday to the release in an Oxfordshire field of a genetically-engineered pesticide 'turbo-charged' with scorpion venom.

The proposed release, highlighted in the Independent last week, brought calls from some leading scientists for a delay in which its risk to the environment could be fully assessed.

The Government's Advisory Committee on Release to the Environment (ACRE) will discuss objections raised over the experiment at a meeting next Tuesday.

The experiment, due to begin this week, involves a virus with added genetic material taken from scorpions. These added genes produce a powerful nerve poison which paralyses caterpillars so they stop feeding and the lethal virus can do its work.

A Department of the Environment spokesman said yesterday: 'We have received an assurance today from the NERC Institute of Virology and Environmental Biology that no release will take place within the next 14 days.'

George Smith, who objected to the trial after canvassing a range of expert views, said yesterday: 'The Department of the Environment is at last doing what they always said on paper they were doing but weren't - which is consulting.'

On 31 March, the experiment was recommended by ACRE as sufficiently safe to proceed. But detailed objections raised by Dr Smith came in too late to be taken into account. These include fears that the virus could easily spread beyond its test enclosures, combine with wild viruses, and pass on the scorpion toxin gene it carries.

The scientists are considering legal action against the department over delays in handling their objections.

Ain't natural, page 26