Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. yesterday rejected demands for some scientists and environmentalist that he ban or severely limit laboratory efforts to transplant genes from organism to organism.
He agreed with an interagency committee that recommended new legialtion to control such research in private firms, as well as in universities where it is now controlled by a set of National Institutes of Health guidelines.
Califano released the text of the committee's recommendations and promised to start drafting possible legislation "immediately." He added: "I recognize that legislation in this area would represent an unusual regulation of activities affecting basic science, but the potential hazards . . . warrant such a step . . . We are not saying that research should be halted. We are urging that it proceed under careful safeguards unless and until we have a better understanding of [its] risks and benefits."
The committee - headed by NIH Director Donald Fredrickson and representing 16 agencies - said all researchers in the field should have to register their projects with a federal authority. That could halt them if they seemed dangerous.
But the committee said the HEW Secretary should have the power to exempt projects that pose no unreasonable risk to the public or environment, as well as power to withold companies proprietary information from the public.
In hearings before a House Health subcommittee this week and at a National Academy of Sciences forum last week, several individuals and groups urged the government to ban such research until its safety can be assessed or to limit it is other ways.
Most of the scientists involved in the work have said that the NIH guidelines do protect the public, and that they should be extended to private industry by the government. Scientists said the research could lead to new drugs and other boons for humankind but also pose dangers that are still dimly understood.