Associate

WASHINGTON - Before BIO 2003 rolled into Washington, the city's denizens were suffering through a wet spring and early summer. It rained so much this year, the soaked earth drove snakes up out of the soggy ground, terrorizing people unfamiliar with finding them on their front steps, in their basements or even, in one case, under a refrigerator, The Washington Post reported.

The clouds have parted, though, and the city has strung together several days of sun and warm weather, blessing the convention and its attendees, who, at last count, bulged to more than 16,000.

The number of protesters this year? Zero. Or at least none that registrants could see. There was not one chant, not one person holding an antibiotechnology sign. The closest thing anyone saw were a few people walking through the exhibition hall holding up blue signs announcing "Carl's Ice Cream Parlor" - a flyer for BIO President Carl Feldbaum's annual ritual of handing out ice cream to attendees.

"Are you a protester?" a man asked one young woman, her ice cream sign hoisted above her head.

She wasn't. The absence of protesters perhaps is an example of either a dissolving U.S. furor over biotechnology in general or their interest in demonstrating elsewhere - more than 1,000 protesters earlier this week took to the streets in Sacramento, Calif., at the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology to voice concerns over bioengineered foods.

If the security officers and police here knew of anything, they weren't talking.

"I haven't seen any," said one security officer.

"They might be someplace else, in another part of the city" said another. "But we haven't had any problems [at the center]."

A police officer said there are protesters of one kind or another in the district "every week," but, leaning against a pole between the buildings and watching registrants pass back and forth, he said he hadn't heard, seen or been in contact with any for BIO 2003.

If biotechnology is gaining favor among the masses here, it's doing so at a slower pace in Europe. A morning session titled "Acceptance of Modern Biotechnology in Europe: Only an Illusion?" addressed how best to win over Europe. Adeline Farelly, communications manager, EuropaBio, said that while there's support in Europe for genetic testing and cloning, support drops dramatically for issues surrounding crops and biotechnology food production. The European population, she pointed out, trusts doctors the most but the industry and politicians the least when it comes to biotechnology.

She conceded there is "an information gap in the European Union," and suggested "we need to bridge that gap" through education and communication.

Actor Teri Garr addressed the crowd at Wednesday's plenary luncheon. Garr, who has multiple sclerosis and is treating her disease with Serono SA's Rebif, spoke about her struggle with the illness. Clearly having some difficulty moving to the podium, Garr told listeners, "I'm not an alcoholic, but I do walk like one, and therein lies the problem."

She joked about herself and Hollywood, bringing laughter. She admitted that when she first learned she had the disease "the letters MS scared the poop out of me" and she called the illness a "scum-sucking pig of a disease." She also urged those in attendance to shoot for the moon because even with a miss "you hit a lot of good stuff along the way."

By 4 p.m., the chitchat and marketing pitches of the exhibit hall, which sits below street level, were replaced by the sounds of ripping tape, boxes being filled and pavilions coming down. There was one official event left - the closing reception at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum - but the end of the exhibition hall marked the conclusion of the hard-sell aspect of the convention and forced exhibitors back above ground, like snakes.

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