April 4, 2006

Firms Seek Ethics Amid Wariness of Drugs, GMOs

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO -- Companies involved in businesses such as drug testing on animals or production of genetically modified foods are creating methods to address ethical dilemmas to overcome public distrust, a study said on Tuesday.

"Our message for bioscience companies is that 'either you start paying serious attention to ethics and lead the way or you'll be pulled down the path anyway'," said Peter Singer, director of the Joint Center for Bioethics (JCB) at the University of Toronto.

Among examples, Danish drugs firm Novo Nordisk cut down on animal tests after letting animal rights activists tour its facilities. Canada's TGN Biotech consulted local people in Quebec about the site a farm for genetically modified pigs.

The survey, based on interviews with 100 executives in 13 bioscience companies also including Monsanto and Merck, said it was some of the first empirical evidence of how firms are trying to balance ethics against a drive for profit.

"We're trying to move away from looking at ethics as scandal to ethics as strategy," Singer told Reuters. "We're lifting up the hood and seeing the concrete strategies companies are using -- this might help to see what other companies can do."

The report, by Canadian and U.S. researchers and published in the journal PLOS Medicine, described emerging corporate methods used for assessing whether a practice was ethical as well as legal.

It did not judge whether firms were more often reaching the "right" ethical decisions and did not consult outside critics.

The study said scandals had often driven corporate decisions on ethics -- such as the pricing of life-saving AIDS drugs in Africa, human embryonic stem cell research, animal testing for producing drugs or the use of genetically modified foods, denounced by some environmentalists as "Frankenfoods."


A main thread was that business leaders had to stress that ethical considerations were important, even if they meant lower profits.

"None of this will work if leaders are not serious about ethics," said David Finegold of the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in California who led the two-year project, funded mainly by Canadian public groups.

Some companies, including Merck and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, have set up internal Ethics Offices. Smaller firms, such as U.S. Affymetrix, had ethics advisory boards or external ethics consultants.

Others taught internal courses on ethics or tried to stress ethics as part of a corporate culture -- for instance by putting ethical messages on computer mouse pads, such as at Millennium.

Other methods included partnerships to bolster ethics. Diversa sought partnerships with foreign national parks, for instance, to avert criticisms of "biopiracy" in exploiting genetic resources found in a rare plant abroad.

Jocelyn Mackie, a co-author of the report at the JCB, said a next step would be to see whether environmentalists or other outsiders believed that companies had raised ethical standards.