SARS infects Taiwanese scientist
By Associated Press
The researcher handled the virus without wearing gloves.
Published December 18, 2003
TAIPEI, Taiwan - Taiwan's first SARS case in five months raised serious questions Wednesday about how carefully laboratories are handling the virus. The infected scientist ignored safety guidelines and waited six days before going to a hospital, even though he had a fever.
The latest infection involved a 44-year-old Taiwanese scientist studying SARS in the island's only "P4 laboratory" - a facility designed for the world's deadliest viruses.
Even though SARS is highly contagious, the scientist didn't wear a gown and protective gloves - basic safety gear required by World Health Organization guidelines, said Dr. Shigeru Omi, the WHO's Western Pacific regional director.
"It's a very high-standard laboratory which requires a very strict procedure, but nonetheless he did not wear the gowns and the gloves," Omi said.
Officials suspect the scientist was exposed to the virus Dec. 5 when cleaning up contaminated liquid in his lab at the state-funded Institute of Preventive Medicine in Taipei, said Su Ih-jen, chief of Taiwan's Center for Disease Control.
"He was in a hurry to get ready for a conference in Singapore, so he was rushing to finish his disinfection work and was careless," Su said.
The scientist had no SARS symptoms when he left for Singapore on Dec. 7, officials said. But hours after his return to Taiwan on Dec. 10, he developed a fever - a key SARS symptom.
Su said he doubted the researcher infected anyone in Singapore or on the China Airlines flight home because he was asymptomatic at that point and not contagious. SARS patients usually start infecting others when they develop a fever, he said.
WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng agreed, saying: "It looks very much like an isolated event."
Still, Singapore quarantined 70 people who had been in close contact with the scientist.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome infected 8,098 people worldwide and killed 774 after it was detected a year ago. Taiwan ranked No. 3 on the global list for deaths and cases, behind China and Hong Kong.
One troubling detail about Taiwan's new case was that the scientist waited until Tuesday night, six days after developing a fever, before going to a Taipei hospital for tests. By the time he went to the hospital, he had developed other SARS symptoms, such as a cough and signs of pneumonia.
SARS was immediately suspected and confirmed by genetic tests.
The scientist, whose name was not made public, wasn't available for comment Wednesday. Possible disciplinary measures weren't discussed, officials said.
Authorities said the scientist properly quarantined himself at home after he developed SARS symptoms Dec. 10. The man's wife, two children and father haven't developed fevers.
Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China, said the case in Taiwan should alert scientists.
"It's a clear reminder again that we have to be extremely cautious working with the SARS corona virus and there are whole issues about whoever in the whole world is keeping a SARS specimen has to be very careful in dealing with this," he said.
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