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Lab as Source of SARS Outbreak This Spring

A laboratory with China's national disease control and prevention center was found to be the source of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) during April and May of this year, health officials said Thursday.   

Addressing a meeting held by the Ministry of Health at Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, health officials said investigation by the ministry in cooperation with the Ministry of Sciences and Technology determined laboratory infection was to blame for the outbreak. Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi was present at the meeting.


Officials said poor lab safety management and irregular operations by professionals resulted in the pollution of a laboratory and SARS virus infection of some lab staff members, which constitutes a major accident due to negligence.


The Diarrhea Virus Laboratory under the Institute of Virus Diseases of the center was found to have conducted SARS virus research adopting untested methods to kill the virus in an ordinary lab, according to the report.


The lab failed to report to higher authorities the fact when unusual health conditions were detected among some of their staff members, it said.


The Ministry of Health has decided to accept the resignation of the director and a vice director of the center.


It also decided to remove the director and a vice director of the institute and head of the Diarrhea Virus Laboratory from their offices.


Vice Premier Wu Yi told the meeting, which was attended by staff members of the center, that the accident caused harm to the health of people and damage to the social and economic development.


Handling of the accident reflects the responsibility of the Party and the central government and the importance they attached to the health and safety of scientific researchers, said Wu.


Efforts should be made to prevent it from happening again, she said.


Wu said China would step up its efforts to formulate laws and regulations on laboratory bio-safety, and improve work conditions for researchers to protect their health and safety and prevent the spread of disease.


Sources with the ministry said those health officials punished include Li Liming, who was director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.


A total of nine people were confirmed as SARS patients during April and May. The nine cases included two from Anhui Province, east China and seven from Beijing.


Beijing reported China's first suspected SARS case of this year on April 22 and the patient surnamed Li and a 26 year-old girl surnamed Song were declared diagnosed SARS patients the next day.


Li apparently caught the disease when taking care of hospitalized Song during March 29 and April 2 at Beijing-based Jiangong Hospital. Song's mother who also looked after the student at the same hospital died of SARS.


Song, a medical student from Anhui Medical University, was then presumed to have contracted the disease when serving as an intern at the Beijing-based Institute of Virus Diseases under the center from March 7 to 22.


A medical researcher surnamed Yang, 31, with the institute was reported as a suspected case of SARS on April 23.


The outbreak had been contained by May 22 after one diagnosed SARS patient died and eight others recovered and were discharged from hospital before May 22.


Soon after the eruption of the disease, an expert team was set up consisting of members from China's Academy of Military Medical Sciences, and Beijing and national disease prevention and control centers.


The team has made epidemiological investigations into the two cases and interviewed all the staff working at the laboratory of Virology Institute, the ministry said.


A total of 5,327 cases of SARS were reported in 2003 in 24 provincial areas on the mainland, including 349 deaths. The disease was under control in mid August of that year.


(Xinhua News Agency July 2, 2004)

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