WHO urges precautions in labs after worker in Taiwan, China, gets SARS

17 December 2003

The United Nations lead health agency today urged countries to ensure that correct biosafety procedures are being followed in laboratories after learning that a lab worker in Taiwan, Province of China, had been infected with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The World Health Organization (WHO) said that for the moment, the positive test of a 44-year-old laboratory worker for the SARS coronavirus appears to be an isolated incident. In August, WHO said there were 8,422 reported cases of the illness, with 916 deaths, most of them in China.

"Local health specialists in [the capital] Taipei have discussed the investigation and the response to the case with WHO today," the UN agency said in a statement. "All contacts are being identified and followed; any who become feverish will be isolated immediately."

WHO said the incident illustrates that SARS presents a continuing threat. "In the post-epidemic period the greatest risk from SARS may be through exposure in laboratories where the virus is used or stored," the agency said. "For this reason, WHO urges countries to conduct an inventory of laboratories and samples that they hold, and to ensure that the correct biosafety procedures are being followed."

Details of this latest event are still under investigation. Local health experts reported to WHO that the researcher was probably exposed to the virus in the laboratory on 5 December. The scientist then travelled to Singapore to attend a conference from 7 to 10 December, returning on 10 December. He began to feel unwell later that day and placed himself in home quarantine. On 16 December, he called an ambulance and was admitted to hospital with a fever.

WHO said contacts are being identified and followed-up. "Additionally, passengers on the researcher's return flight from Singapore are being notified and instructed to monitor their health. Authorities are also investigating how the patient was exposed," the agency said.


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