BRUSSELS, Belgium Most of the biotech firms and associations in Europe declared at the end of October that they now share a set of core ethical values. In a bid to show that ¿European bioindustries are aware of their responsibilities towards the citizens of Europe,¿ and that they ¿commit themselves to display responsible behavior,¿ the formal decision was made by the members of EuropaBio, the European biotech industry lobby organization, to coincide with their major European conference in Brussels.

The general principles include a commitment to ¿realizing the potential of biotechnology to improve the quality of human life,¿ with priority to ¿health, safety and environmental protection,¿ ¿full respect for human dignity and human rights,¿ ¿balanced¿ communication about biotech products and services, ¿dialogue¿ with ¿those concerned about the ethical and societal implications of biotechnology,¿ and ¿respectful¿ treatment of animals and avoidance of ¿any disproportionate suffering¿ to them. Also among the vows are ¿conservation of biological diversity,¿ opposition to ¿the use of biotechnology to make any weapons¿ and a refusal to develop or produce them, and support for exchange of biotechnology between developed and developing countries ¿duly considering each country¿s cultural values.¿

In health care, the industry statement talks of ¿respect¿ for codes of ethics of health care professionals, ¿support¿ for ¿protection of confidentiality of medical information, which includes genetic information,¿ opposition to use or disclosure of medical information without informed consent or that which could ¿lead to allow intolerance or stigmatization.¿ It also pledges a commitment to ¿ensure, within our responsibilities¿ that informed consent is duly obtained for individuals in research, testing or treatment programs. ¿We do not use or support the use of cloning technologies to reproduce human beings,¿ the industry members said. ¿We do not support human germ line gene therapy.¿ But they do support ¿the accessibility of counseling for genetic testing.¿

In other areas, the industry statement said it supports improvements in the quality of food and agricultural products, ¿efficient and stable agriculture¿ and ¿new biotechnological developments which offer additional opportunities for farmers to protect or improve their crops and to use natural resources more effectively.¿ It also said it backs ¿transparent product information to promote informed consumer choice,¿ and ¿the development of bioremediation and cleaner industrial and municipal processes through biotechnology.¿

The statement binds 45 multinational firms, as well as 14 national associations (representing another 600 smaller firms) to ¿voluntarily adhere to these core ethical values¿ and to ¿recognize EuropaBio¿s responsibility to consider deviations by its members¿ from the values, as well as to ¿recommend appropriate responses after a reasonable due process.¿

For The First Time, There Are Firm Values¿

The core ethical values first made their appearance in draft form more than a year ago. Since then, the key change, according to Erik Tambuyzer, of Cambridge, Mass.-based Genzyme Corp., who chaired the EuropaBio task force that drew the values up, is that they have been accepted, ¿and for the first time there are firm values for this industry, north, south, east and west in Europe.¿ This, he told BioWorld International as the document was unveiled, is no mean feat. ¿You can only put common denominators into a set of ethical values that are going to span such a geographical range across Europe, Tambuyzer said. The challenge now, he said, is how to bring them to life which means creating mechanisms for checking compliance and for self-regulation, ¿so as to keep flexibility in a positive sense.¿

Another key change is that the ethical values statement has been bolstered by the creation of an advisory group on ethics, consisting of seven senior academics in philosophy, ethics and science from cities as diverse as Louvain, Belgium; Versailles, France; Lisbon, Portugal; Cambridge, U.K.; Copenhagen, Denmark; Zurich, Switzerland; and Wurzburg, Germany. Tambuyzer said EuropaBio made the decision to recruit only bioethicists and not consumer representatives because ¿in this way, they are able to talk at the same level.¿

The independent advisors have agreed to meet quarterly to identify, clarify and discuss ethical issues raised by biotechnology in general and by the activities of the European biotechnology industry in particular. It will also keep under review the operation of the EuropaBio core values. And it will express its views freely, subject only to the condition of prior ¿substantial dialogue with EuropaBio,¿ which ¿will be informed about press contacts well in advance.¿