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SARS Outbreak Shows Lax Lab Security

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
May 19, 2004


The world is back on SARS alert again, although the numbers of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome cases in China this spring remain thankfully small.

But none of this spring's nine confirmed SARS cases in China, including one death so far, and some 1,000 mandatory quarantines need have happened. That the SARS virus was loose again in China is shameful not only to that nation, but to the global public health community.

This latest outbreak was entirely human-made. And it is a stain on the reputations not only of the Beijing laboratory from which the virus escaped, but the Chinese government and all international health agencies.

It has been known for well more than a year that conditions in many of China's laboratories are abysmal. And there have been two previous instances of SARS leaking from Asian laboratories: Singapore in September and Taiwan in December.

Happily, in those cases infection did not spread beyond the afflicted scientists. But the incidents offered ample warning to the region's governments, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other health agencies that studying live samples of this coronavirus could, in substandard or lax laboratory settings, constitute a local and even international security threat.

Further, the inability of the WHO and CDC to account for the whereabouts of live SARS virus samples, both inside the United States and overseas, constitutes an extraordinary failure in light of concerns about bioterrorism and the tight restrictions that have been placed on so many other, better-understood microorganisms since 2001.

In fairness, WHO and CDC - as well as a host of counterpart health agencies worldwide - moved with haste to identify the mysterious new microbe last year in an effort that entailed deliberately spreading blood, tissue and viral samples extracted from SARS patients to labs all over the world. Many of those labs, eager to figure out what was causing the new epidemic, in turn passed on samples to other research centers.

Local laboratories also extracted their own samples from SARS patients. It is no wonder, then, that scientific agencies are having a hard time keeping track of who has SARS samples and in what sorts of facilities the deadly microbes are housed.

In this latest incident, the National Institute of Virology in Beijing is taking the blame for spawning a mini-outbreak that has so far spread from two lab scientists to their contacts and then to a third level of contacts - spreading SARS to Anhui Province as well as Beijing. A World Health Organization team has been in Beijing, working under dangerous conditions inside the now shut-down National Institute of Virology. With Chinese health officials, the WHO team is trying to figure out how the virus managed to leak from its BioSafety-Level 3 (or BSL-3) containment to infect two workers elsewhere in the large building. That they have, to date, no working hypothesis of how the leak occurred offers still more cause for concern.

Last May, as SARS spread out of control in Beijing, I spent many hours in the National Institute of Virology laboratory. Outside are almost no security obstacles to would-be interlopers.

The Institute's so-called BSL-3 lab might have been adequately secure for its previous roles in HIV and hepatitis research, as both of those viruses are spread by direct blood-to-blood exposure. But the SARS virus is carried in microscopic droplets of fluids exhaled by one person and inhaled by another.

There are other newly discovered viruses under study right now in lax laboratories around the world. And - as is the case with SARS - WHO and CDC are hard-pressed to name all the facilities that house these agents.

No health agency - not the CDC, WHO or their national counterparts - has the legal clout to command that a new rule book of research be imposed worldwide. But surely a system can be created for registering laboratories the world over, certifying - based on WHO inspection - that they meet a specific standard.

And somebody ought to be keeping track of the sharing of microbes. The wealthy nations of the world that conduct well more than 90 percent of the world's scientific research ought to recognize the security need to monitor the flow of these germs, and fund a WHO department to track the whereabouts of SARS and dozens of other pathogens that surface every year somewhere on Earth - prompting mad flurries of much-needed, but potentially risky, research.

Laurie Garrett, a former Newsday reporter, is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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