BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ Massive confusion over biotechnology in the European Parliament last week may, paradoxically, have slightly improved the prospects for science and industry in Europe over the medium term.
That, at any rate, is what the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries in Europe are arguing after the spectacular failure of a European Parliament attempt to create a coherent regulatory framework for biotechnology.
The Parliament debated on Thursday the 300-page report that a special committee had prepared during the course of 2001 on the ethical, legal, economic and social implications of human genetics. The conservative draft report, which in particular urged tight controls on the use of embryonic stem cells, was attacked from all sides during the debate. Pro-industry and pro-science advocates called for a more adventurous approach to the potential of biotechnology. Radical reactionaries demanded a total ban on any form of research involving embryos. Every shade of opinion was represented in the debate, as some 200 amendments were tabled.
But the debate was followed by a chaotic series of votes on each of the amendments proposed, and then on the modified report. In the end, after more than an hour of ill-tempered voting during which the Parliament adopted some amendments that tightened the restrictions and others which loosened them, the final vote threw the report out by a massive majority. Of the 400-plus Euro-MPs who stayed to the end of the voting session, only 37 voted for the modified report, and 316 voted against it. Even Francesco Fiori, the Italian Euro-MP who had spent a year drafting the document, voted against it at the end, claiming that it had been denatured by the final debate. So, too, did Robert Goebbels, the Luxembourg Euro-MP who had chaired the special committee on genetics that was set up to produce the report. He said the outcome left Parliament looking ¿ridiculous¿ and ¿undignified.¿
However, EuropaBio, the European bioindustries association, said immediately after the vote that it welcomed the work of the Parliament¿s special committee, despite the rejection of the final report. It said the yearlong debate on human genetics and medicine that the committee had generated ¿was fruitful, in that it allowed for a full examination of the issues.¿
Hugo Schepens, secretary general of EuropaBio, said he appreciated the challenges surrounding the committee¿s work ¿in attempting to put together a balanced report that is supportive of science and medicine while respecting societal values. We look forward to contributing to the ongoing debate, which is legitimate and necessary,¿ he said.
Similarly, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations and its Emerging Biopharmaceutical Enterprise group also said they found consolation in the fact that the debate, despite its outcome, had ¿started examination of the issues related to various aspects of genetics and medicines, some of which have great implications for the future of medical research and society.¿ EFPIA Director General Brian Ager said that in view of the rapid progress and promising prospects in human genetics, ¿this ongoing debate encourages medical and scientific advances.¿ He promised that the pharmaceutical research-based industry ¿is fully committed to continue to contribute to any further debate.¿
Goebbels, the committee chairman, a doctor and a self-proclaimed supporter of innovative research, expressed himself unambiguously after the Parliament¿s vote. ¿The Parliament was not ready for this,¿ he admitted. Most Euro-MPs still lack the knowledge to hold an informed debate on such a complex subject, he said. But he found some consolation in the result. He said the exercise had helped raise the level of understanding of medicine and genetics and the role of biotechnology among European legislators. And the rejection of the report had averted the risk of clamping new and harmful controls on research. This meant that the Parliament¿s last word, for the present, on the subject was its vote earlier in November, when, Goebbels pointed out, Euro-MPs gave their broad backing to the EU plan for a new six-year research support program, which explicitly includes assistance for biotechnology research, including on stem cells.