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Cheating at the Outer Edge

November 14, 1986

Researchers in genetic engineering have understandably grown impatient with the administrative morass that has developed around getting approval for tests of altered organisms. More than a decade has passed since fears of potential catastrophes from gene-splicing were first voiced, and all evidence to date indicates that those fears were groundless. A few months ago the Reagan Administration put a new, liberalized regulatory program into effect. But proposals for field-testing potentially beneficial new products continue to languish under threat of legal challenge.

Tired of waiting, some biologists have decided to conduct their tests overseas, where foreign governments are less encumbered by skeptics and regulations. Last July the Wistar Institute of Philadelphia and the Pan American Health Organization took a new rabies vaccine produced by genetic engineering to Argentina and tested it on 20 cows. Argentina has no regulations about genetic engineering, and the researchers simply conducted the experiment without telling anyone. This has got the Argentine government upset, and with good reason.

Now it turns out that the experiment in Argentina was no isolated case. Researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis who have genetically engineered a vaccine against a common animal virus went to New Zealand in April of this year and inoculated 37 calves, 16 chickens and 4 sheep with it. Unlike the Argentine affair, however, the Oregon State people told the government of New Zealand what they intended to do, and the government approved the experiment.

The disclosure of these two field tests follows three incidents earlier this year in this country in which researchers were reprimanded or rebuked for unauthorized testing of live, genetically engineered organisms in the environment. Some people have apparently decided to get around the regulatory process by taking their experiments abroad. This is a shortsighted idea that in the end may bring more regulation and difficulty on them.

To be sure, the tests in Argentina and New Zealand, like the tests in this country, were successful and gave no evidence of any danger posed by releasing laboratory-created organisms into the environment. The prospect of an environmental calamity remains science fiction. What's more, these new vaccines promise benefits to society in increased food supplies at lower prices.

But the researchers should not be looking for loopholes in the rules. As evidence has accumulated that the products of genetic engineering are safe, U.S. regulations have been steadily reduced. No one, of course, can ever be sure that something is perfectly safe, but gene splicing's record to date should allay fears. Still, the questions are legitimate, and it is both wise and politically prudentfor researchers and commercial producers to be cautious and to follow the rules. The public has a right to expect a high standard of safety in these experiments. It will demand more regulation if it thinks that those standards are not being met.

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