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Taiwan's Top Science Lab Fined for Worker Infected with COVID-19, First Domestic Case Ever - Report

© Wikipedia / LysimachiMain entrance of Academia Sinica
Main entrance of Academia Sinica - Sputnik International, 1920, 28.01.2022
The lab staff member, who was in her 20s and fully vaccinated, reportedly began exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms on November 26, 2021, and tested positive with COVID-19 later that day. At the time, Taiwan had no documented locally transmitted cases, while the lab is responsible for COVID-19 vaccine and medicine development.
After a research assistant at its Genomics Research Center contracted COVID-19 on the job in late 2021, Academia Sinica, Taiwan's most prestigious academic institution, was eventually fined for biosafety violations, Science reported on the developments in the incident.
During a press conference held last week, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, who also heads Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), reportedly said the academy would be fined 150,000 New Taiwan dollars ($5400) for the incident, which was reportedly the world's first documented infection with the pandemic coronavirus in a research lab.
Michael Lai, a virologist at Academia Sinica's Institute of Molecular Biology, is quoted in the report as saying that the case implies that lab oversight was "not stringent enough."
The infected worker, as well as her supervisor, departed the lab just before she tested positive. The worker willingly resigned on December 3, according to Academia Sinica's statement to the outlet. Jan Jia-Tsrong, her supervisor, told Science that he retired on December 1, adding that his retirement was planned well before the occurrence and is related to his age and health.
The assistant had worked with infected animals, and her viral sequence allegedly matched that of a Delta variant strain sent to the lab by the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, but not that of Delta strains discovered in the population in recent months.
By December 9, according to the report, when CECC published the case, the woman's condition had improved, and 110 close contacts and 373 individuals with a connection to the case had all tested negative.
Later last month, the country's CDC presented a report on the incident, concluding that the assistant may have become infected by inhaling a virus present in the lab or by removing personal protective equipment (PPE) in the improper order, starting with her face mask.
CECC reportedly highlighted various issues at the lab in response to the conclusions of an external investigative committee. The statement claims that staff involved in the research did not wear coverall hazmat suits, N95 masks, double gloves, goggles, or shoe covers, and did not follow procedures for using biosafety cabinets or removing PPE.
The lab's staff training was allegedly considered insufficient, and Academia Sinica's biosafety committee did not perform enough audits or track new employee training and assessment.
Interestingly enough, Jan had been through a similar ordeal with a virus closely related to the current SARS-CoV-2. He reportedly became infected with the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, while working at the National Defense Medical Center's Institute of Preventive Medicine, roughly 6 months after a worldwide outbreak of the disease was quelled.
Back then, Taiwan, in conjunction with the World Health Organization, adopted new biosafety measures in the aftermath of the incident. Jan, on the other hand, reportedly believes that lab mishaps can never be completely avoided.
And according to Filippa Lentzos, a sociologist at King’s College London who specializes in biosecurity issues, as quoted by Science, it is rather "surprising" that there have not been more reported cases of lab outbreaks recently, since personnel at numerous labs around the world are handling or investigating the virus.
However, it should be mentioned that in areas where SARS-CoV-2 is widespread, such cases could easily go unnoticed.
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