Taiwan’s latest local COVID-19 case had likely contracted the virus at work at an Academia Sinica laboratory, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) said yesterday.
The woman, who is in her 20s, worked as a research assistant at the Genomics Research Center in Taipei’s Nangang District (南港) until Friday last week, where tests on mice using the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 are conducted, the center said.
The genome of virus samples taken from her and the genome of the virus tested at the lab were found to correspond, it said.
Photo: Fan Pin-chao, Taipei Times
The woman, who lives in New Taipei City, is Taiwan’s first domestic case since Nov. 4.
Her infection raised public concerns over whether she contracted the disease from within her community or at work, as well as over whether she might have infected others.
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the center, said that 105 close contacts of the case — including former colleagues, classmates and people who had meals with her — were placed under isolation at centralized quarantine facilities, adding that 102 among them have so far tested negative for COVID-19.
Another 34 people were ordered to practice self-health management, of whom 32 tested negative, he said.
Chen said that 325 people who worked in the same building were ordered to practice self-health management, adding that 21 of them tested negative and the others would be tested tomorrow.
“Her close contacts, excluding three who are waiting to be tested, have all tested negative,” Chen said.
Her genome sequencing results showed that she was infected with the virus used for testing at the lab, Chen said.
Her virus’ genome differed from that of Delta cases reported between June and September, he added.
“We can determine that the case’s source of infection is the laboratory, not the local community,” Chen said.
Academia Sinica Department of Academic Affairs and Instrument Service Director-General Chen Chien-Chang (陳建璋) said the woman in October reported to her supervisor that she had been bitten by a lab mouse.
However, the incident was not reported to the institution’s dedicated department as required by its standard operating procedure of disaster response, he said.
Last month, the woman was again bitten by a lab mouse infected with the Alpha variant, he said.
At the time colleagues next to her in the lab were working on mice infected with the original strain of the virus and the Delta variant, he said.
“We cannot exclude the possibility of cross contamination within the laboratory,” he said.
Academia Sinica President James Liao (廖俊智) said that each laboratory has its own guidelines and standard operating procedures, and further investigations would look into whether the guidelines and procedures had been followed strictly.
Chen Shih-chung said that it is unlikely that she contracted the virus from mouse bites, but added that she might have contracted the virus in a contaminated laboratory environment, for example the area where workers remove personal protective equipment.
He said environmental surface testing was yesterday performed in the building that houses the lab, and preliminary results showed that COVID-19 was detected in a few spots in the laboratory, including on doorknobs and desktops, but the virus was not detected anywhere outside the lab.
The CECC also confirmed reports by local media that the woman has been studying Japanese at Tamkang University’s Division of Continuing Education in Taipei.
Her teacher and 12 classmates are among the 105 close contacts placed in isolation, it said.
Chen Shih-chung said that there are no plans to impose further restrictions on year-end events, as all contacts of the case tested negative.
The CECC yesterday reported 10 imported cases, who arrived from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the US.
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