June 01, 2007

The hysteria behind Russia's ban on DNA exports

17:05 | 01/ 06/ 2007

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maxim Krans) - Russia's ban on exporting human tissue has caused a huge row. The indignant medical community has warned that it threatens the lives of thousands upon thousands of patients.

The Health Ministry immediately distanced itself from the moratorium, imposed by the Federal Customs Service, and declared that it would not harm people. But shipping companies have already stopped accepting medical specimens bound for other countries. These specimens are mostly samples given by volunteers to major pharmaceutical companies in exchange for free drugs. The ban has compromised the joint work of Russian and foreign researchers who are developing unique medicines to fight serious diseases.

Now clinics can no longer send tissue specimens from seriously ill patients to foreign research centers with the latest equipment and technology, which Russia does not have. Molecular research is critical for the treatment of many diseases that were considered incurable until only recently. This applies, for one, to bone marrow transplants from non-relatives. Up to 2,000 Russians require this operation every year. This number includes children with congenital blood diseases that have now been deprived of their last hope.

While bloggers draft an angry letter to President Vladimir Putin, analysts are trying to guess the reason behind this ban. Some of them attribute it to scandals involving human organ transplants, while others believe that the authorities want to put an end to uncontrolled exports of stem cells. Still others recall a relatively recent case involving the smuggling of corpses. In 2001, the remains of 51 Russians were sent from Novosibirsk to the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg. Controversial artist Gunther von Hagens, known as Doctor Death, turned them into sculptures that were shown at exhibitions.

But the most fantastic explanation was offered by an article in Kommersant. Quoting reliable sources, its author links the ban to a report given by the FSB secret service to the president in May. Ostensibly, the report warned that Western clinics were using Russian genetic material to prepare biological weapons that would harm only Russians.

I saw something similar in an American blockbuster - the racists were going to pour a similar substance into the water in order to poison millions of African Americans. But that was just a movie. Could such a thing happen in real life?

Nikolai Yankovsky, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of General Genetics, said a resolute "no" - human DNA cannot be used to develop biological weapons.

Nikolai Nikolsky, a prominent expert on molecular biology with the St. Petersburg Institute of Cytology, called the idea "fantastic."

Nobody denies the threat of bio-terrorism, especially after 9/11, when the whole world started talking about the use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists. Russia also took this threat seriously. After all, 12 countries have engaged in military biological research, including Russia - a secret research center in Obolensk near Moscow turned strains of deadly bacteria into weapons. To prevent terrorists from using them, the Russian authorities developed a strategy for biological security that was approved by the president in 2004.

Few people know what was said in the report received by the president. But its contents are not as important as its timing. The election campaign is gaining momentum and a leak of information about a foreign enemy engaged in evil intrigues will help win more votes.

The ban is probably the work of overzealous officials who did not think about its consequences. But as a result, many cancer patients will get no treatment and children will not receive vital bone marrow. Medical experts believe that this strange moratorium will affect at least 40,000 Russians.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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