Sat, Dec 20, 2003 - Page 5 News List

WHO asks governments to help curb SARS

REUTERS , MANILA AND AP, BEIJING

The World Health Organization (WHO), alarmed that both cases of SARS in the last three months have been traced to laboratory accidents, said yesterday it was asking governments to ensure safety at research institutions.

A research scientist at a Taipei military hospital tested positive for SARS this week after possibly contracting the disease in a laboratory accident two weeks ago, officials in Taiwan said.

The only other SARS infection since the WHO declared the outbreak over in July has been of a research student in Singapore. He tested positive for the potentially lethal disease after another accident in September, but recovered.

Peter Cordingley, a spokesman for the WHO's Manila-based Western Pacific headquarters, said his office was "talking with governments and asking for an inventory" to assess safety and security at laboratories handling the SARS virus.

"There should be no more cutting corners and procedures should be followed to the letter," Cordingley said.

Governments in Asia are worried the flu-like disease, which killed more than 800 people and battered some of the region's economies earlier this year, could resurface over the winter.

Dr Shigeru Omi, the WHO's regional director, told reporters on Wednesday there appeared to be lax application of laboratory rules in the Taiwan case.

"Initial information is he was not wearing a proper gown and lab gear for protection," Omi said. "There were lapses in WHO procedures."

Cordingley said the case in Taiwan should be a wake-up call for researchers after the earlier incident in Singapore, but he acknowledged that the WHO's influence stretched only so far.

"We are not the lab Interpol," he said. "We can't go out busting laboratories and inspecting them."

Meanwhile, nineteen hospitals in Beijing have turned over lab samples of the SARS virus to officials wanting to prevent the accidental spread of the disease, health officials said yesterday.

China told researchers nationwide on Thursday to hand in the samples for storage after Taiwan announced that a scientist on the island who handled the virus had contracted the disease.

"All of the SARS virus samples in Beijing have been collected and put in storage by the Beijing Center for Disease Control," said Wu Jiang, director of the center's Infectious Disease Control Institute.

It wasn't clear whether researchers in other parts of China had complied yet with the order, said Liu Xia, a spokeswoman for the national Health Ministry. She said the ministry would be sending inspectors to check other provinces.

The ministry said Thursday that "many organizations'' in China were working on possible vaccines and might have samples.

China reported 349 deaths from the outbreak, which is believed to have started last November in its southern province of Guangdong. More than 5,000 people were sickened.

The collected materials are to be stored in seven facilities, including a military laboratory and government labs in Beijing and Guangdong, the hardest hit areas in the country, according to the ministry.

The Beijing Health Bureau was checking other facilities in the Chinese capital for unreported virus samples, said Zhang Jianshu, a spokesman for the bureau.

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