Taiwanese SARS researcher infected

Dec 17, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – A Taiwanese scientist has contracted SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), probably while studying the SARS coronavirus in a laboratory, the Taiwan Department of Health reported today.

The case is the first in Taiwan and the second reported anywhere since health officials declared this year's global outbreak over in early July. The last case was in a researcher in Singapore in September. The Taiwan case triggered an alert in Singapore because the scientist had been there just before he became ill.

The man, a 44-year-old senior scientist at the National Defense University in Taipei, tested positive for the SARS virus after he was examined at a hospital yesterday, Taiwan officials said in a news release today. The World Health Organization (WHO) said the findings were confirmed on multiple samples in two laboratories in Taipei. Taiwan officials did not identify the patient.

The scientist had been working on a SARS study in Taiwan's only biosafety level 4 lab since June, the Taiwan statement said. He experienced a fever Dec 10 and stayed home to rest. He later had diarrhea, and he went to a hospital Dec 16. A chest x-ray showed pneumonia in his right lung, and polymerase chain reaction tests of throat and blood samples were positive for the SARS virus. The finding was further confirmed today by testing at Taiwan's Center for Disease Control.

A statement from the Singapore Ministry of Health said the scientist was in Singapore for a meeting from Dec 7 until early Dec 10. His fever developed the evening of the 10th, after his return to Taiwan, the statement said.

Because of the 10-day incubation period for SARS, 70 people who were in contact with the man Dec 9 and 10 were ordered into home quarantine until Dec 19, Singapore officials said. In addition, those who were in contact with him Dec 8 were advised to monitor their temperature.

Taiwan officials said, "So far, no fever has been detected in the researcher's colleagues or family members, who are now undergoing a 14-day self-initiated health check program. Close contacts will be put under home quarantine if fever should develop in these persons."

WHO spokesperson Maria Cheng said the case appears to be isolated, according to an Associated Press report. She said the man was asymptomatic while in Singapore, and infected people are not known to transmit the disease at that stage.

The patient's lab is suspected as the source of infection, and officials were investigating, the Taiwan statement said. Environmental samples from the lab were being tested.

The AP report quoted Dr. Shigeru Omi, the WHO's Western Pacific regional director, as saying the patient most likely was infected by some spilled liquid he saw on the surface of a test tube. Omi said the man was working without protective gear, such as a gown and gloves, at the time, according to the report.

According to the AP report, Taiwan Health Minister Chen Chien-jen said that because the researcher was not believed to be infectious during his travels, passengers on his China Airlines flight would not be individually told about his case.

The Taiwan statement said the government, as previously scheduled, had begun fever monitoring in government institutions and schools Dec 15 to guard against SARS and influenza. "This measure will become mandatory after this infection episode," officials said. "Travelers with fever will be restricted from leaving Taiwan and will be required to obtain a health certificate from a hospital."

In addition, all Taiwanese labs that work with the SARS virus were ordered to implement stringent disinfection procedures and to suspend research on viral cultures "until biosafety has been guaranteed and approved by the government," officials said.

Taiwan was the last place to have locally spreading SARS during this year's global outbreak. The WHO reported on July 5 that SARS had been contained in Taiwan. The island had 346 probable SARS cases with 37 deaths, according to the WHO.

In Singapore's SARS case in September, a 27-year-old researcher became infected while doing research in a government lab. An international review panel concluded that the man caught the virus because of inappropriate procedures. The man recovered and apparently did not transmit the virus to anyone else.

See also:

WHO statement

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