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Health ministers from countries in the Middle East have agreed to consider a proposal to establish a network of national biotechnology organisations. The move is partly a response to Western embargoes on trade in such technologies with some countries in the region.

The aim of the initiative includes improved monitoring of medical biotechnology research at the national level, and increased sharing of developments and expertise within the region. This could be of particular benefit to those countries such as Libya, Iran, Syria and Pakistan, which find it difficult to access Western expertise.

The proposed organisations would also engage the public, students, media and religious leaders in debates on ethical issues related to new biomedical technologies.

Officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) put the proposal to health ministers at the organisation’s 50th ministerial conference in Cairo this week. WHO hopes that making such a commitment to public debate before genomics becomes more widely used will deflect the kind of opposition that has greeted developments in agricultural biotechnology in Europe.

“Given our changing world it is difficult for countries to access genomics and other technologies that are becoming essential for healthcare,” says Abdur Rab, a Cairo-based regional policy adviser for the WHO.

“Genomics is a technology that will help us to deal with diseases that are a huge burden in our part of the world, but right now many of our countries are restricted in terms of what they can and cannot acquire.”

Pakistan established the region’s first national biotechnology commission two years ago, with a US$500,000 annual budget. The commission focuses on public awareness and networking the country’s researchers in agriculture and healthcare biotechnology.

Oman is likely to follow suit, according to Ali Gaafar Suleiman, director of laboratories in Oman’s Ministry of Health.

The idea to establish national biotechnology coordinating bodies was first suggested at a WHO regional conference of public health officials in Muscat at the end of September. The conference was organised by the WHO and the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics.

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