By Nuala Moran

BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON ¿ The UK government pulled back from a threat to pass a law banning insurance companies from taking genetic test results into account when selling life policies, after the industry agreed to a five-year moratorium on the use of such tests.

Health Minister Lord Hunt said, ¿I welcome this five-year breathing space to work with the industry to get things right. However, I want to make it very clear that if there is evidence of serious and persistent noncompliance by the insurance industry, then the government is prepared to enforce the moratorium, through legislation if necessary.¿

The moratorium follows reports earlier this year by members of Parliament and the Human Genetics Commission (HGC), which both found the existing system of self-regulation by the insurance industry had failed.

The HGC, a UK government watchdog, said a moratorium would give time to establish a ¿clear and defensible regulatory system, which not only balances the interests of insurers, insured persons and the broader community, but also enjoys the confidence of the public.¿

Under the current system, insurers are allowed to take into account only the results of a few specified and approved genetic tests, and they are not allowed to require applicants to take tests. But the HGC said it had evidence that some insurers were using nonapproved tests, and that there was no way of monitoring and enforcing the voluntary code.

Under the moratorium agreed to between the government and Association of British Insurers (ABI, representing 97 percent of UK insurance companies), insurers cannot ask to see the results of previous tests, or require people to take tests, for life insurance coverage up to #500,000, or other coverage up to #300,000. Insurance companies will be entitled to see the results of tests for Huntington¿s disease when selling policies above these values.

Mary Francis, director general of the ABI, said, ¿This agreement will enable us to have a rational and informed discussion about the best way forward for the UK on genetics and insurance. Insurers, the public and Parliament have many understandable concerns about the use of genetic test results.¿

The chair of the HGC, Helena Kennedy, said the public needs to be sure the ban is carefully monitored. ¿We welcome the government¿s reassurance that there will be mechanisms in place to deal with transgressions.¿

Human Genetics Alert, an independent UK watchdog group, said the self-policed moratorium was part of an ongoing attempt by insurers to avoid external regulation. ¿People should not be fooled by this apparent concession by insurers,¿ it said. ¿Genetic discrimination is wrong in principle and should be banned immediately.¿