SARS case in lab worker

Taiwan man working in military lab contracted the virus in early December

By | December 17, 2003

The World Health Organization has confirmed that it has received a report from Taipei that a 44-year-old male lab worker has been infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The news has raised fears once again that another outbreak of the disease could originate from a lab.

Tests conducted in two Taiwan laboratories confirmed the presence of SARS coronavirus in the lab worker, the agency said on Wednesday (December 17), but tests in a WHO reference and verification laboratory have been recommended for confirming the results.

At the moment, this appears to be an isolated incident, but all contacts are being followed.

“This incident illustrates that SARS presents a continuing threat. In the postepidemic period, the greatest risk from SARS may be through exposure in laboratories where the virus is used or stored,” WHO said in a statement. “For this reason, WHO urges countries to conduct an inventory of laboratories and samples that they hold and to ensure that the correct biosafety procedures are being followed, as approved at a WHO laboratory workshop on 22 October, 2003.”

WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng told The Scientist that the researcher was working in a military laboratory. The lab is the only level P4 lab in Taiwan.

Chang said WHO hadn't known that the lab had samples of the SARS coronavirus. “WHO doesn't really know how many labs are working with SARS around the world,” she said. “During the outbreaks, lots of samples were taken... and we don't know where they all are.”

It's thought that the researcher was probably exposed to the virus in the laboratory on December 5. He then traveled to Singapore to attend a conference December 7–10, returning on December 10.

He began to feel unwell late on December 10 and placed himself in home quarantine. On December 16, he called an ambulance and was admitted to the hospital with a fever.

Passengers on the researcher's return flight from Singapore are also being notified and instructed to monitor their health.

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