Science

Taiwan’s science academy fined for biosafety lapses after lab worker contracts COVID-19

TAIPEI, TAIWAN—Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s most prominent academic institution, has been ordered to pay a fine for biosafety lapses after a research assistant at its Genomics Research Center contracted COVID-19 on the job in late 2021.

Health minister Chen Shih-chung, who also heads Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), announced during a 20 January press conference that the academy will be fined 150,000 New Taiwan dollars ($5400) for the incident, apparently the world’s first documented infection with the pandemic coronavirus in a research lab. The case suggests oversight at the lab was “not stringent enough,” says Michael Lai, a virologist at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Molecular Biology. The infected worker left the lab shortly before she tested positive, as did her supervisor.

According to CECC, the lab staff member—who was in her 20s and fully vaccinated—began to display COVID-19 symptoms on 26 November 2021 and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. Taiwan did not have confirmed locally transmitted cases at the time, and an investigation strongly suggested the infection occurred at the lab, which works on COVID-19 vaccine and drug development. The assistant had handled infected animals, and the sequence of her virus matched that of a Delta variant strain supplied to the lab by the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, but not those of Delta strains found in the community in the preceding months. The woman’s condition was improving by 9 December, when CECC announced the case, and 110 close contacts and 373 others with a connection to the case all tested negative.

A report that Academia Sinica submitted to CECC on 19 December—a summary has been made public—concluded the assistant may have become infected by inhaling virus present in the lab or because she removed personal protective equipment (PPE) in the wrong order, starting with her face mask. (In a statement to Science, Academia Sinica says the report can not be released without CECC’s permission.)

In a 24 December statement on the findings of an external investigation committee, CECC flagged several problems at the lab. Staff involved in experiments did not wear coverall hazmat suits, N95 masks, double gloves, goggles, or shoe covers, and did not follow procedures for the use of biosafety cabinets and the removal of PPE, the statement says. Staff training at the lab was deemed inadequate, and Academia Sinica’s biosafety committee did not conduct sufficient audits or track training and assessment for new personnel.

CECC has not released a full investigation report, however, which some scientists say is a troubling lack of transparency. “People need to know what’s going on and why it happened in Academia Sinica,” says Shih Shin-Ru, director of Chang Gung University’s Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections. Still, Filippa Lentzos, a sociologist at King’s College London who specializes in biosecurity issues, applauds the Academia Sinica for making the case public. We’re still at the stage where people look bad if they report [an incident] or the institute looks like they don’t know what they’re doing,” Lentzos says.

Academia Sinica told Science the infected lab worker voluntarily resigned on 3 December. Her boss, immunologist Jan Jia-Tsrong, tells Science he retired on 1 December; he says his retirement was planned well before the incident and is related to his age and health.

As it happens, Jan was involved in a very similar event with a closely related virus. In 2003, while working at the National Defense Medical Center’s Institute of Preventive Medicine, he became infected with the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, about 6 months after a worldwide outbreak of that disease was quashed. (He did not pass the virus to anybody else.) In the wake of that incident, Taiwan adopted new biosafety protocols in consultation with the World Health Organization. But Jan says lab accidents can never be fully prevented.

The new incident is troubling to opponents of so-called gain-of-function research—in which pathogens are engineered in ways that could make them more virulent or more transmissible. Academia Sinica says the lab where the incident occurred does not conduct gain-of-function research. But the incident “definitely adds to my concerns,” says Imke Schroeder, a microbiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies lab safety. “If a gain-of-function pathogen should reach the public via an infected lab worker, it could have a catastrophic outcome.”

The accident in Taiwan is the first SARS-CoV-2 infection in a research lab reported in a database of published laboratory-acquired infections maintained by the American Biological Safety Association. Lentzos says it’s “surprising” there haven’t been more, because workers at many labs around the world are handling or studying the virus. But in countries that have lots of SARS-CoV-2 circulation, such cases could easily fly under the radar, she says: “Because the coronavirus is starting to become endemic in so many places it can be hard to say whether it’s come from a lab.”

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