2002 is the year of the clone, Cypriot fertility expert says

The «Attack of the Clones» may be drawing cinema crowds but the real shock came from the USA. «This is the year of the human clone,» Dr Panayiotis Zavos told Kathimerini, raising the possibility that the first cloned child could shortly be born. Is this a threat or a challenge? In answering such a question, one needs to look at the larger picture and consider the magnitude of such a scientific development. Even if cloning is the only way for some couples to acquire their own biological offspring, it is the beginning of a very slippery slope. The attempt by some parents to give their children characteristics they perceive to be superior will not only lead to a very lucrative market in genetically modified people but will mean the end of freedom and social evolution, resulting in a society where genetic characteristics will determine relations of submission, control and class stratification. This, of course, will mean the complete distortion of human evolution, with perhaps fatal results. The most reputable scientific studies note that cloned beings in fact display a great many problems. As many as 97 percent of cloned organisms die before birth, according to the latest study from the University of Pennsylvania. There are, of course, studies showing that the opposite is true, but who wants to make a mother a guinea pig? Kathimerini spoke to two scientists at the forefront of the debate, Dr Panayiotis Zavos and Dr Spyros Simitis. Dr Panayiotis Zavos is one of the few scientists to openly claim that experiments are being conducted to clone a human being. He argues that the genie has already been let out of the bottle. The 58-year-old Greek Cypriot, a specialist in reproductive technology, has lived in the USA since 1966 where he taught at the University of Kentucky and worked with the US National Health Institute. He is now director of the private Zavos Diagnostic Laboratories and the American Institute of Andrology. How close are we to the first human clone? What I can say is that 2002 will be the year of the clone! Does this mean that you are already monitoring pregnancies involving human clones? Let’s not be too specific at this point; I am speaking generally. From the point of view of scientific possibilities, we are already capable of cloning humans. My group is already making progress. Aren’t there enormous difficulties? Of course there are difficulties, but specialized people, scientists who know what they are doing, can overcome them. Most scientists, however, claim that human cloning could be a catastrophe, considering that the first cloned sheep, Dolly, came after 400 failed attempts. You are referring to the views of Dr Ian Wilmut, the «father» of Dolly, Dr Rudolph Jaenisch of MIT, and others. They are very reputable people, who think they know everything. What I want to ask is this: just because these or other scientists have not developed their techniques, does this mean that the same applies to everyone? Furthermore, according to many studies, cloning animals has been far more successful since 1998. The successful cloning of goats has improved to comprise 32 percent of total embryo transplants; with cows, the figure is 80 percent, way above the 3-percent figure when Dolly was cloned in 1995. These percentages are close to or surpass the corresponding success rates for artificial reproduction. And all this has happened in the last three years, while artificial reproductive technology has a 24-year history. Of course, this does not mean there are no problems. Yet there are many studies that question this success rate. For example, they mention defects even in animals that manage to be born. There are several views. Recently, Chinese geneticists published two studies, in the journals «Science» and «Biology Reproduction,» that support my views. You recently spoke to Congress. What was the response to your speech there? They were very upset. And do you know why? Because I told them the truth, but they didn’t want to hear it. Most of them are opposed, but they are looking at things from the political viewpoint. My viewpoint is professionally, morally and medically sound. How do you deal with the fact that cloning is banned in the USA? But it is not banned. There is no law against it. Congress has drafted a bill, but it has not passed the Senate, after which it has to be approved by the president. There is already a law stating that reproduction is a fundamental right for all Americans. We believe that every law forbidding cloning is opposed to this constitutional principle, and, therefore, will be judged illegal. There will be many couples who will take recourse to the Supreme Court. So there can be no law which bans cloning, neither now nor in the coming years. Between the poles Nevertheless, you do not work in the USA. Where are you based? Outside the USA. Reuters reported that you work somewhere between Greece and India. How close are you really? You could write that I travel between the North and the South poles. Many of your colleagues just write stories. If you want, you can write a medical thriller. As you don’t want to reveal exactly where you are experimenting with cloning, let’s change the subject. Apart from the medical obstacles to reproductive cloning, do you recognize the social issues? Many are afraid of the creation of supermen or genetically modified children. Something like that could happen in future, but we would need far more scientific knowledge. It is up to the governments of the world to decide if that is what they want. The first condition is to know what you are talking about. Let them ban genetically modified babies, but only when they know exactly what they are talking about. They cannot ban cloning technology, however. As I told Congress, the genie is out of the bottle and cannot go back in again. At least let’s make it work for us. Dr Severino Antinori announced that three women are pregnant with clones. Is this true? You’ll have to fly to Rome to ask him. But you know, anyone can say «I have three women expecting clones». I believe that Antinori has nothing tangible. I know Antinori well and I know when he is telling a tale and when he is telling the truth. You used to work together. Why did you split up? Because Antinori wanted to tell stories. I wanted to work. Many claim that you also say you have achieved things just to gain reputation. But I was famous long before all this. My concern are the thousands of couples who have no other choice but cloning in order to acquire their own child.