Lab accident linked to new SARS case

Scientist in Taiwan is first person infected in world since late August

December 18, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BEIJING - Taiwan said yesterday that a scientist contracted SARS while doing research in the island's most secure medical facility but the outbreak was under control.

The news that a laboratory mishandled the deadly virus gave financial markets jitters in several Asian capitals. The stock prices of Asian airlines tumbled.

It was the first case of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the world since late August, when a Singapore doctoral student contracted the virus in a state-run laboratory. The 27-year-old student fell ill but recovered. A series of safety lapses was blamed later.

An outbreak earlier this year spread to about 30 countries and killed 774 people, mostly in China and Hong Kong. The outbreak caused more than $16 billion in economic losses.

By July, the World Health Organization declared that the infectious disease was contained globally.

SARS first appeared in China and was spread by travelers.

In the latest laboratory bungle, a 44-year-old senior scientist at Taipei's National Defense University who had been researching SARS had an accident in his lab Dec. 5 while hurrying to complete an experiment before traveling to Singapore for a medical conference, Su Yi-jen, the chief of Taiwan's Center for Disease Control, said in Taipei.

The scientist wasn't following safety guidelines, such as wearing protective gloves, and noticed spilled liquid on the outside of a test tube he was using, Dr. Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization's Western Pacific regional director, said in the Philippines. Omi said the liquid might have been the source of the infection.

The scientist attended a conference Dec. 7-10 in Singapore and developed a fever on returning to Taiwan. He checked into Taiwan's Hoping Hospital late Tuesday, and doctors confirmed he had SARS yesterday. He was reported in stable condition.

Singapore's Health Ministry ordered 70 people who had contact with the Taiwanese scientist to be quarantined until tomorrow but said it detected no further sign of SARS and assured citizens there was no cause for alarm.

Taiwan Health Minister Chen Chien-jen said the case was isolated and the chances of it spreading weren't high.

As news of the Taiwan case emerged, stock markets in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore wobbled. The stock price of China Airlines, the Taiwanese carrier that the infected scientist used to return from Singapore, fell 3 percent, and Taiwan's Eva Airways fell 2.8 percent. Singapore Airlines, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways and South Korea's Korean Air also tumbled.

The SARS outbreak earlier this year prompted a sharp drop in airline passengers, emptied streets of shoppers and slowed economic activity across Asia.

The outbreak cost China about $6 billion, Hong Kong $6.5 billion and Singapore $2.1 billion, the Manila-based Asian Development Bank recently reported. Canada suffered losses of up to $2.1 billion.

The race for a vaccine against SARS has led to widespread laboratory work on the virus.

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