DUBLIN, Ireland - Switzerland has voted by a two-to-one majority to block a proposal that would have imposed a comprehensive ban on the use of genetic engineering technology.

The country's electorate voted Sunday on the Gene Protection Initiative, which sought to prohibit the granting of patents on plants and animals, the development of transgenic animals and the deliberate release of genetically modified species. (See BioWorld International, Nov. 26, 1997, p. 1.)

The final result was 33.2 percent in favor of the proposal, with 66.7 percent against, on a 41 percent turnout.

The proposal also contained a general provision that would have required researchers to demonstrate the usefulness of their work and to prove that no alternative approaches existed. It would have proved particularly damaging to the country's research community, many of whom might have been forced to emigrate.

Most campaigners on either side of the debate expressed surprise at the final margin. Opinion polls had predicted a much closer result.

“It actually went better than we hoped for,“ said Herbert Reutimann, at Basel-based Biotectra, the technology transfer arm of the government-backed Swiss Priority Programme for Biotechnology.

“I was very worried it would be a very narrow escape,“ said Martin Fey, professor of medical oncology at the University of Berne's Institute of Oncology. A slim majority in favor of genetic engineering would have conveyed the perception of Switzerland as a hostile environment for research, he added.

The vote is specific to Switzerland, said Mark Hill, spokesman for Basel-based Novartis AG, “but it does kind of send a signal to the rest of Europe.“

“I would say we are now in an excellent position, because we know that the public is behind it [genetic engineering], and very strongly behind it,“ Reutimann said.

The referendum defeat marks the end of a five-year campaign by a coalition of some 60 interest groups, including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, which had called for the ballot under Switzerland's direct democracy system. This allows any group that collects more than 100,000 signatures to call for a referendum.

Florianne Koechlin, a Basel-based ecologist who was one of the leaders of the campaign, said the dominance of medical issues in the referendum debate was the main factor in its defeat.

“I'm still convinced that a very big majority of the Swiss people doesn't want genetically modified food or genetic engineering in agriculture,“ she said. Her group will decide whether to launch an initiative based solely on this issue later in the year.

“The ball is with industry and government to fulfill all of the many promises they made in advance of the vote,“ Koechlin said.

New genetic engineering measures, collectively termed the Gen-Lex package, currently are traveling through the legislative process. They are intended to fill in gaps in the existing legislation, said Reutimann, and include tougher procedures for risk assessment and for determining liability in the event of an accident.

“Industry clearly said before the referendum they are giving full support to the Gen-Lex program,“ he said. In fact, the insurance industry is expressing strongest reservations on the issue, Reutimann added.

Basel-based Roche Holding Ltd. said Monday it would continue to give its “unqualified support“ to the Gen-Lex package.

But Switzerland's position as one of the world's leading centers for basic research in the biological sciences is now safe. Its research community, which includes a healthy quota of Nobel Prize winners, played a lead role in securing the vote.

The main lesson to be learned from the experience, said Hans Hengartner, at the University of Zurich, is that the public must be properly informed about research results. “Awareness has to be cultivated.“

Hengartner is codirector of the university's Institute for Experimental Immunology with Rolf Zinkernagel, the 1996 Nobel Prize winner for physiology or medicine. Hengartner also is a board member of Switzerland's National Science Foundation, which funds the country's basic research programs. He plans to push for a portion of its budget to disseminate public information. *