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Officials Concerned About SARS Infections by Lab Contamination

The New York Times -- In their vigil for a possible return of SARS, health officials have focused mainly on finding where the virus hides in nature.

But the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome in a 27-year-old doctoral student in Singapore has shown an equally important risk -- escape of the virus from a laboratory.

The case adds to thousands of other infections accidentally acquired in a laboratory over the years.

Last week, a World Health Organization committee that investigated the case concluded that the student most likely became infected in August through contamination in a laboratory where he worked on another virus.

“Inappropriate laboratory standards and a cross-contamination of West Nile virus samples with SARS coronavirus in the laboratory led to the infection of the doctoral student,” the committee reported.

In a separate incident that occurred after the Singapore case was detected, the Chinese University of Hong Kong halted work on growing the SARS virus, officials said last week.

University workers followed the standards for the second-highest security laboratory, known as a BSL-3 facility. But some equipment they used did not meet security standards.

The findings underscore that a laboratory can be a hazardous place for workers and potentially for the public unless the staff members are disciplined and trained to prevent accidental infection.

Although the Singapore student did not transmit the virus to other people, and no infection is known to have resulted from the problem in Hong Kong, experts view these incidents as a wake-up call.

They point to gaps that exist in putting biosafety standards into practice, even in high-tech countries and prestigious universities.

For example, Yale has experienced two accidents. In 1969, a laboratory worker who helped discover the Lassa fever virus at Yale died of an accidental infection. In 1994, another Yale researcher survived infection with the Sabia virus, a cause of hemorrhagic fever.

A notorious accident occurred in 1979 when the smallpox virus escaped from a laboratory at the University of Birmingham in England. It infected two people, one fatally, months after epidemiologists had rid the world of smallpox.

No additional spread occurred, preserving the disease’s eradication. But the scientist in charge of the laboratory committed suicide.

Now, many laboratories around the world have stored thousands of SARS specimens in freezers, ready to be thawed as needed. The WHO has cautioned China and other countries that accidents may occur in laboratories where there is little experience with dangerous infectious agents.

Also, as many governments have increased spending to counter the threat of emerging diseases and bioterrorism, many laboratories have hired more people. But some of them may have insufficient training in dealing with such agents.

Biosafety experts say many laboratory workers must change their attitudes toward safety.

Some workers do not practice what they were taught in biosafety courses. For some scientists, the experts say, doing the research is more important than doing the research safely.

Laboratories can be likened to kitchens. Failure to clean dishes properly can cause an outbreak of food-borne disease.