Swiss pharmaceutical companies breathed a sigh of relief earlier thismonth when the federal government said that it sees no need forfurther legislation on genetic manipulation of plants and animals. Thegovernment recommended that the Swiss electorate vote in aforthcoming referendum to reject an initiative that would inhibit thebreeding of transgenic animals, the release of genetically manipulatedplants and microorganisms and the patenting of gene-manipulatedplants and animals.

Eckart Gwinner, spokesman for Roche Holding Ltd., of Basel,Switzerland, said that industry welcomes the government'suncompromising rejection of the citizens' initiative. Industry fearedthat the government would put forward its own proposals forlegislation.

The government's statement came 18 months after opponents togenetic manipulation successfully launched the Genschutz geneprotection initiative by submitting to the federal government the100,000 valid signatures needed to get the topic put to a nationalreferendum. In May 1992 such a referendum had already added to theSwiss constitution a supplementary paragraph: "Mankind andenvironment are to be protected against misuse by in vitrofertilization techniques and gene technologies; experiments withhuman embryos, the cloning of humans and germ line manipulationare forbidden."

If the public ignores the government's advice and votes to placefurther restrictions on genetic manipulation, its biggest immediateimpact would be on Switzerland's world class academic research,said Marco Ermini, director of Pharma Information, an industryinformation group. "It would not be deadly to the multinationals," headded. With large operations in other countries, they can always goelsewhere.

Gwinner agreed that further constraints on research could send theindustry's research elsewhere over time. But he warned that goodacademic researchers are also very mobile and would have nodifficulty finding work elsewhere. "If this initiative came through,"he said, "the most important scientists would leave Switzerland."

Opposition to the initiative has come from the academic communityas well as industry. The Swiss National Research Council currentlyspends more than 100 million Swiss Francs ($90 million) a year forbiomedical research including genetic engineering. "The Swissuniversities and the Federal Institutes of Technology cannot survivein life science research without genetic engineering," said RichardBraun, head of the microbiology department at the University ofBerne. "The scientists are therefore strongly opposed to theGenschutz initiative."

Gwinner said tighter legislation would add to the woes of an industrythat, with its small home market, is already suffering badly from thestrength of the Swiss Franc. "At the moment there is no question ofdiminishing the research in Basel," he said. "But if the initiative isapproved then we would have to transfer most of our researchfacilities to other countries."

The Swiss government's decision not to put forward its ownproposals for public discussion does not mean the end to furthercontrols on the industry. The legislature already is in the process offormulating environmental protection laws to control the chemicalsindustry. This would include controls on genetically modifiedorganisms. But the government has said that there is no need forfurther legislation on genetic engineering, Gwinner said.

In the lead up to the referendum on the initiative, likely to take placein about 18 months time, the industry is unlikely to embark on anextensive public relations campaign, said Gwinner. Instead it willconcentrate on providing information.

As well as Roche, Switzerland's pharmaceutical and biotech sectorincludes the chemicals giants Sandoz Ltd. and Ciba-Geigy Ltd., bothwith sizable interests in pharmaceuticals. The three companiestogether spend more than $400 million a year on research anddevelopment. So far, said Ermini, the Swiss-based multinationals stilldo nearly half of their research in genetic techniques in Switzerland.n

-- Michael Kenward Special To BioWorld Today

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.