Cult scientists claim first human cloning
Calls for worldwide ban as anger at 'mavericks' grows
Julian Borger in Washington
A cult which believes that humans were first created by aliens claimed yesterday that it had won the clandestine and increasingly bizarre race to produce a human clone. It said a baby girl was born on Thursday from an egg fertilised by a skin cell from her mother.
Brigitte Boisselier, who calls herself a bishop of the Raelian sect, offered no proof to back her claim at a press conference in Florida, but said an independent panel of scientists would be allowed to verify it with DNA tests in the next eight or nine days.
The announcement provoked an outcry among scientists concerned that it might open the floodgates to a cloning free-for-all among childless couple and wealthy customers seeking a form of immortality, at a time when the human consequences of such an experiment are unknown. Ms Boisselier, a former research chemist from France, said a company associated with the cult, Clonaid, expected four more cloned babies to be born in the next two months, the first next week to a lesbian couple at a secret location in Europe.
Two other couples, one Asian and one North American, were expecting babies made with cells taken from previous children who had died.
She added that 20 more women would be implanted with cloned embryos at a new Clonaid laboratory in January.
A maverick Italian gynaecologist, Severino Antinori, has also announced that another baby cloned with his help would be born in January. Dr Antinori said the mother, in the 33rd week of pregnancy, and the male foetus were doing well, but he declined to give details.
At a press conference made all the more surreal by the dramatic orange and white colour scheme of Ms Boisselier's hair, the head of the Raelians cloning firm, Clonaid, declared: "I'm very, very pleased to announce that the first baby clone is born."
She called the baby Eve, and said she was born by Caesarean section on December 26, weighing 7lb, and was "doing fine".
But Ms Boisselier would not reveal where she was born, saying only that the parents were American and would return to the US in three days. She said the couple had sought help from Clonaid because the husband was sterile.
British scientists were among those condemning the news. Dr Patrick Dixon, a leading expert on the ethics of human cloning, said: "There's a global race by maverick scientists to produce clones, motivated by fame, money and warped and twisted beliefs.
"The baby has been born into a living nightmare with a high risk of malformations, ill-health, early death and unimaginably severe emotional pressures."
A spokeswoman for the human fertilisation and embryology authority said it was "concerned", but would reserve judgment until the claims were confirmed.
A White House spokesman said President George Bush believed the news was "deeply troubling" and strongly supported legislation by Congress to ban all human cloning.
The French president, Jacques Chirac urged all states to sign a convention presented to the UN by France and Germany for the "universal prohibition of human reproductive cloning".
There is no law in the US specifically against human cloning, as Congress failed to agree on whether just reproductive cloning should be banned or all forms of cloning, including stem cell technology in which cloned human cells are used for produc ing tissue for transplants. However, the Food and Drug Administration has maintained that it constitutes dangerous, and therefore illegal, medical practice.
Scientists across the US were yesterday sceptical about Clonaid's claims, particularly Ms Boisselier's claim that of 10 women implanted with cloned embryos, five had sustained successful pregnancies, a success rate far in excess of experiments in cloning animals.
However, Stuart Newman, professor of cell biology at the New York Medical College, said it was not inconceivable that the Raelians had succeeded.
"You don't have to be extraordinarily competent to do this. You just have to be prepared to take risks with people's lives," he said. "It's just taking two damaged cells. Part of an egg and part of another cell and you're putting them together and hoping for the best."
Clonaid was founded five years ago by a self-styled prophet known as Rael, formerly a French sports journalist called Claude Vorihon, who established a sect on the belief that human beings were first cloned 25,000 years ago by extra-terrestrials.
Ms Boisselier restated her beliefs yesterday: "Everything in me has been created by scientists. If science created me, then science has some good, if it is used for good."
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley