The Council of Europe has just created a working group tasked with considering changes for Article 13 of the Oviedo Convention, a text which prohibits modifications of the human genome at European level.
Promulgated in April 1997, the Oviedo Convention is the first international legal instrument protecting human beings against any misuse of biological and medical findings.
Developed in the 1990s, the Convention is in force in 29 of the 47 member countries of the Council of Europe.
In particular, it prohibits the creation of human embryos for research purposes, and, in countries where such research is permitted by law, it requires adequate protection of the embryo.
Article 13 of this convention states: “An intervention seeking to modify the human genome may only be undertaken for preventive, diagnostic, or therapeutic purposes and only if its aim is not to introduce any modification in the genome of any descendants.”
But, over the course of scientific progress, the text which, although imperfect, constitutes one of the last safeguards against genetic manipulation, has become constraining for the sorcerer's apprentices of the human genome.
Particularly since the arrival of the CRISPR/Cas9 technique, a genetic “pair of scissors” whose many applications have made heads spin.
A direct modification of the Oviedo Convention does not seem possible: the text, being the result of negotiations, must be ratified by all the member states. It is hard to imagine Poland or Hungary giving their approval to genetic manipulation.
A first option would be to add an additional protocol: but this solution was refused. This is why, in early June, the Council of Europe's Bioethics Committee confirmed “that conditions were not in place for an amendment to Article 13.”
But the Council seems to have found a way to get around the difficulty, by setting up a working group which will be required to "clarify" the text, in particular regarding the “preventive, diagnostic, or therapeutic” terms, in order to distinguish the “research” from the “clinical application” aspect of the findings.
The objective is to reconcile respect for Article 13 and research on the human embryo, authorized in many signatory states. Reconcile or bypass? The “particulars” would leave the possibility of modifying the human embryonic genome “for research,” that is, without their being implanted, but destroying them on the 14th day of development. A red line that the French deputies have already crossed with the bioethics bill.