Leading Article: . . . and when to regulate it

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GENETIC engineering is, like the development of smart cards, a field in which scientific advances are racing ahead of public debate. At best, most people consider only the moral issues: whether, for example, it is right to manipulate the genes of foetuses. But there are equally pressing questions about the safety of releasing genetically altered organisms into the environment. A new strain of plant may seem to be a harvest boon but can turn into a pest once it is established, uncontrolled in the natural world.

The suspension announced yesterday on certain forms of genetic research at Birmingham University demonstrates the need for vigilance. A halt was ordered in the face of fears that researchers - and perhaps even the public - could be exposed accidentally to a cancer-causing virus created in a laboratory at the university's medical school.

The pre-emptive action taken by the Health and Safety Executive vindicates its policy of strictly regulating genetic engineering. Once a potentially lethal pathogen is released there is little hope of eliminating it. The level of risk dictates the need for caution.

This policy is accepted as good sense by much of the biomedical industry. Most companies involved in commercial research recognise that if something goes wrong in a laboratory, or a bug accidentally escapes, untold damage will be done to the reputation of their fledgling industry.

But the lack of commercial self-interest may make universities a greater danger area. Some independent-minded academics are prone to believe that their research involves little danger and that regulations are an unnecessary nuisance. Yesterday's announcement shows that even university committees charged with maintaining standards can exercise questionable judgements. In this case, the responsible committee was found to have been overconfident about its ability to keep its staff and the public safe from the stitching of a cancer-causing gene into a virus that is infectious to human beings.

The Birmingham episode should be a lesson to those in the Government who would have a bonfire of safety regulations: the rules covering genetic engineering must be maintained if the benefits of this research are not to be outweighed by dangerous genetic mistakes.

The HSE has proved to be a flexible organisation whose experts are willing to drop controls that have proved unnecessary. Ministers should remain faithful to its counsel in monitoring an industry whose long-term effects remain so unpredictable.

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