Taiwan Researcher’s Covid-19 Bite Raises Questions
Infection from contaminated mouse raises concern over virus’s ability to escape from lab
By: Jens Kastner
In late December, Taiwan’s top research institute, Academia Sinica, was fined for violating regulations governing the management of infectious biological materials after a laboratory researcher was infected with Covid-19 in circumstances that continue to unsettle medical experts and add to suspicions that the original pandemic could have escaped from a Wuhan laboratory.
According to Academia Sinica, the woman, who had previously received two shots of the Moderna vaccine, said she had been bitten by laboratory mice on two occasions, with genome samples confirming that she was infected with the same genome the lab had been working on at the time. This leaves little to no doubt as to the source of infection.
Huang Yanzhong, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, for his part, says the incident adds credibility to the theory that the Covid-19 coronavirus afflicted humankind through a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. That theory is vehemently opposed by China and downplayed by several studies including one convened in February 2020 by the World Health Organization and which concluded it was "extremely unlikely."
Because many of the early infectees were workers at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, China has stuck to the theory that the pandemic originated from an animal or frozen imported food sold at the market. That was seemingly corroborated by a panel of scientists writing in Nature Medicine journal in March 2020, which made clear that “all notable SARS-CoV-2 features” were also observed “in related coronaviruses in nature” and that therefore “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”
The Taiwan incident, “which involved a researcher catching the virus at a workplace while researching the virus, adds credibility to the lab leak theory,” Huang told Asia Sentinel. “But since lab accidents happen all the time, and Taiwan does not have formal participation in the WHO-led global health governance, it would be unrealistic to expect this incident alone to have any major impact on the direction and progress of the origins probe.”
Taiwan is excluded from participation in the WHO on orders of Beijing, which considers the island and its 23.5 million residents to be a renegade province.
Other observers pointed out that the Taiwan mouse bite events suggest that insufficient safety training at biosafety level 3 (P3) and 4 (P4) laboratories across the region, not only in China, pose serious dangers. In Asia, P4 laboratories used for diagnostic work and research on easily transmitted pathogens that can cause fatal diseases (such as Ebola and the Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever) exist in China, South Korea, India, Taiwan, and Japan.
P3 laboratories such as Taiwan’s Academia Sinica exist also in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore. P3s are commonly used for research and diagnostic work involving various microbes which can cause severe diseases, such as SARS, MERS, Covid-19, or the West Nile virus.
“Accidents in the laboratories can be minor, such as rat bites, syringe pricks, or damaged gloves and protective clothing breaks, and there are also major ones, such as loss of negative pressure air system or software failure,” wrote Hsu Ying-Chang, head of Taipei-based biotech company Ington Biotechnologies, in a recent opinion piece in Taiwan’s Chinese-language daily Liberty Times.
“Scientists are concerned that risk assessments for P3 and P4 laboratories have not yet been fully grasped, but it is generally believed that accidents caused by human factors are one hundred times more frequent than those caused by equipment failures,” he added.
Hsu pointed out that in the SARS epidemic that struck southern China and Hong Kong in 2002-4), resulting in 8,469 cases with a case fatality rate of 11 percent, there were also four laboratory accidents in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, and Taiwan. The two accidents that occurred in Beijing in April 2004 were determined to be in the Institute of Virology under the Beijing Disease Control Bureau, but the Chinese authorities still do not know where the source of the infection came from.
As for the SARS accident in Taiwan, the virus leaked from the military’s P4 laboratory in Sanxia, with also that cause still being unknown, Hsu wrote.
The US’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) warns that Zoonotic diseases (i.e., diseases which are transmitted from animals to man), although uncommon in laboratory settings, can have significant health consequences for personnel.
According to the committee, risks are substantially minimized by measures such as using appropriate handling techniques when manipulating animals, their tissues, and caging.
Hsu called upon Taiwan’s health authorities to follow the example of Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, which requires researchers to have at least 100 hours of training before being cleared for work in the P4 laboratory.
Safety Guidelines for Biosafety Level 1 to Level 4 Laboratory by Taiwan’s ministry of health, as seen as an online document by Asia Sentinel, require new personnel in laboratories and storage sites to undergo at least eight hours of basic biosafety courses.