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    WHO blames lab safety for SARS case
(HK Edition, )

SINGAPORE: World Health Organization investigators said yesterday that a Singapore researcher became infected with SARS in a government lab and blamed insufficient safety training for the mistake.

The 27-year-old postdoctoral student had been working on West Nile virus research in two labs in Singapore when he inexplicably came down with severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in late August.

"Inappropriate laboratory procedures and the cross contamination of West Nile virus samples with SARS coronavirus in the lab led to the infection of the doctoral student," said a statement from the Ministry of Health summarizing the findings of the WHO-led inquiry.

Investigators said the student most likely acquired the infection at the government-run Environmental Health Institute.

"No evidence could be found of any other source of infection," the statement said.

The genetic sequence of the lab's strain of SARS coronavirus and the strain that infected the patient "were closely related", convincing investigators the man was infected in that particular lab, it said.

The panel also blamed the slip-up on "insufficient" training of lab workers and released a list of suggested safety reforms for Singapore's labs, including keeping proper records of its viruses.

The researcher tested positive for SARS on September 8, nearly two weeks after falling ill. He has recovered and was discharged from hospital on September 16.

WHO bio-safety expert Dr Anthony Della-Porta told reporters yesterday it was unclear when the man contracted SARS, saying "it could have been months before" but said it "was clear where the incident occurred".

He added that the researcher "rushed through" safety procedures during his last visit to the lab on August 23, three days before he fell ill.

"It hasn't been a disaster but it could have been," said Della-Porta, an Australian who headed the investigation team.

Della-Porta said the lab began working with the SARS virus in April - having only previously worked with mosquito-borne diseases - but had failed to introduce tougher safety measures. "It was not necessarily negligence but it certainly was a mistake," Della-Porta said when asked whether the lab was to blame for the man's infection.

It was Singapore's first SARS case since WHO declared the city-state had successfully brought the disease under control in July.

Agencies via Xinhua

(HK Edition 09/24/2003 page1)

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