CORONAVIRUS/Safety rule violations at COVID-19 lab led to infection: report

12/20/2021 10:03 PM
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CNA file photo
CNA file photo

Taipei, Dec. 20 (CNA) Several safety rule violations, including not wearing proper protective gear while conducting experiments, led to a researcher working at an Academia Sinica laboratory handling the COVID-19 virus to become infected with the disease, according to an investigative report conducted by the research institute.

The researcher is a woman in her 20s who worked until early December in a lab at the Genomics Research Center at Academia Sinica, Taiwan's top research institution. She began to display COVID-19 symptoms in late November, and a COVID-19 test she took on Dec. 9 came back positive.

Based on genome sequencing results, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) concluded that the laboratory in Taipei's Nangang District where she worked was the origin of the infection, which raised questions about whether current safety protocols were adequate in preventing potential transmission and whether the laboratory had violated any of the protocols in place.

In the wake of the incident, Academia Sinica was ordered to conduct an internal investigation, and a 28-page report on its findings was sent to the CECC on Sunday.

According to a summary of the report released by the CECC Monday, Academia Sinica identified three reasons why the researcher had been exposed to the virus, based on interviews with people who worked there, laboratory records, and surveillance footage of the lab.

Researchers are only allowed to handle COVID-19-infected mice in biosafety cabinets, but this rule was violated, resulting in several areas in the lab becoming contaminated, the summary said.

The researcher infected with COVID-19 also once took off her mask before removing the rest of her protective gear, which was not the correct order of removal. Furthermore, the researcher and her colleagues failed to wear proper protective gear -- including N95 masks, two sets of gloves, and safety goggles -- while conducting experiments, the summary said.

As a result, the researcher was directly exposed on several occasions to the virus while wearing inadequate protective gear, which could have resulted in her becoming infected with the disease, though she could also have been infected because she had removed her gear in the wrong order, according to the summary.

Academia Sinica said that it would review its supervisory system for its laboratories that handle sensitive materials, and that it would strengthen training for research personnel.

The CECC plans to meet with an independent investigation committee looking into the incident on Thursday and release relevant findings, including what punishments will be handed out, in two weeks, it said.

The laboratory has been temporarily barred from using infectious biological materials and may only resume their use after obtaining approval from the Centers of Disease Control, the CECC said.

None of the infected researcher's contacts have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the CECC.

(By Chiang Yi-ching)

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