Using genetic tests for insurance 'years away'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2001, 12:00am

It could be years before genetic testing for insurance purposes becomes feasible in Hong Kong because the technology is insufficiently advanced and the tests too expensive, experts say.

The Federation of Insurers has invited a British geneticist to visit Hong Kong later this month to study whether its code of practice covering clients' genetic information, adopted a year ago, should be revised.

Under the code, an insurer is permitted to increase premiums or refuse to cover a customer with a known genetic risk of disease. It also obliges a client to furnish the insurer with the results of any genetic test taken, but prohibits the insurer from forcing a client to undertake such tests.

Chinese University chemical pathology professor Nelson Tang Leung-sang said the technology was not yet good enough to make testing viable for insurers.

Professor Tang said genetic mutations had been linked to 5,000 diseases. However, he cautioned that tests only indicated a higher risk of developing a disease. Environmental factors and lifestyle might often be more important.

'Take breast cancer for example,' he said. 'The gene factor is considered a strong indicator of the killer disease. However, only five per cent of cases are found to be related to the gene mutation, and 95 per cent are caused by lifestyle and environmental factors.' Breast cancer kills 300 women a year in Hong Kong.

A genetic test to identify the presence of disease-related genes could cost up to $20,000, Professor Tang said.

Fellow chemical pathology professor at the university Dennis Lo Yuk-ming said advanced tests, developed overseas, were often for diseases uncommon among Chinese, while those prevalent in Hong Kong and the mainland such as nasal cancer had no reliable genetic tests yet.

The two professors also stressed ethnic issues were more important than technical and commercial limitations, because widespread use of genetic data could exclude high-risk groups from insurance coverage. 'These issues are more important,' Professor Lo said.

The federation could not be reached for comment yesterday. But in previous statements, it has said no members had asked for or used genetic information from clients.

The federation had said the code's real purpose was to make clear its position to pre-empt the Government from trying to impose an outright ban on the use of genetic information in insurance.