On Dec. 11, the Central Epidemic Command Center announced that a research assistant at the biosafety level 3 (P3) laboratory of Academia Sinica’s Genomics Research Center in Taipei’s Nangang District (南港) had been infected with COVID-19. This incident is shocking, but not entirely unexpected.
Laboratories are inherently dangerous places. Biosafety level 4 (P4) laboratories handle infectious and highly lethal pathogens such as Ebola, Lassa fever and the Marburg virus, which are often difficult to treat, whereas P3 laboratories study pathogens such as the tuberculosis bacterium and SARS-CoV-2, which are slightly less lethal, but still dangerous.
In 1967, African green monkeys transported from Uganda to Germany turned out to be infected with a virus that they passed on to humans, sickening 37 people, including laboratory researchers in Marburg and Frankfurt, and their family members, seven of whom died. The virus was named the Marburg virus after the location of this breakout.
During the 2002 to 2004 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), laboratory accidents occurred in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore and Taiwan. The two SARS leaks that happened in Beijing in April 2004 were confirmed to have occurred at the Institute of Virus Research of the Beijing Disease Control Bureau, but even now the Chinese authorities do not know exactly where the infection came from. One of the two laboratories was studying the genetic material of SARS virus fragments, which theoretically could not have caused the infections, and the other laboratory’s work had nothing to do with SARS.
As for the SARS accident in Taiwan, the virus leaked from the National Defense Medical Center’s P4 laboratory in then-Taipei County’s Sansia Township (三峽) — now New Taipei City’s Sansia District — and the cause of the leak is still unknown.
There are currently about 59 P4 laboratories in operation around the world. Laboratory accidents range from small ones, such as mouse bites, pricks and tears in gloves and protective clothing, to larger events, such as the loss of negative air pressure or software failures.
Scientists still do not understand the risks of P3 and P4 laboratories well enough to assess the risks precisely, but it is generally believed that 100 times more accidents are caused by human factors than mechanical failures.
The most effective way to improve the situation would be to work out how to standardize experimental procedures.
In the US, for example, Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories require their researchers to undergo at least 100 hours of special training before they can work in a P4 laboratory.
Ian Hsu is president of a biotechnology company and a part-time assistant professor at National Chung Cheng University’s Department of Biomedical Sciences.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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