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Taiwan confirms researcher infected with COVID in lab

Genetic sequence of Delta variant at Academia Sinica's Genomics Research Center matches infected researcher

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Academia Sinica Institute laboratory. (CNA screenshot)

Academia Sinica Institute laboratory. (CNA screenshot)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) concluded on Saturday (Dec. 11) that an assistant researcher was infected with the Delta variant of COVID while experimenting on the virus in a high safety laboratory.

Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) head Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), confirmed the entire genomic sequence of the Delta variant contracted by an assistant researcher, case No. 16,816, matched that of the samples she had been experimenting on at Academia Sinica's Genomics Research Center (GRC). This is a P3 (Biosafety Level-3) facility located in Taipei's Nangang District.

In addition, the genomic sequence of the version of Delta contracted by the researcher differs from any other domestic cases reported in local outbreaks from June to September. This led the CECC to conclude it was not a community infection.

Chen said tests on nearly 700 people in the neighborhood of the research institution have all come back negative for COVID, indicating the virus has not yet spread to the local community. Out of the 105 people who came in contact with the researcher and were told to enter quarantine centers, 102 have tested negative, while three are awaiting their results.

There are also 34 contacts undergoing self-health management, with 32 having tested negative and two still awaiting their results. Another 325 who worked in the same building but on different floors are undergoing self-health monitoring, with 21 testing negative and 11 awaiting results.

Director of the Academic Affairs and Instrument Service, Chen Chien-Chang (陳建璋), said that according to an initial investigation, case No. 16,816 had been bitten for a second time in November by a mouse infected with the Alpha strain. That same day, there were two other workers conducting research on mice infected with the original strain first seen in Wuhan and the Delta variant.

Taiwan confirms researcher infected with COVID in lab
Academia Sinica Institute BSL-3 laboratory. (Academia Sinica Institute photo)

Officials are not ruling out the possibility that an error occurred during handling of the mice and that a cross-infection occurred inside the lab. When the researcher was first bitten in mid-October, she notified her supervisor.

However, lab management did not notify more senior management. This was said to represent a failure on the part of the lab team to follow standard operating procedures and report to more senior staff.

Prior to resigning from her position, the researcher complained to the GRC lab supervisor about the harsh language criticizing her work. On Tuesday, the GRC held a meeting to resolve the matter and afterward the researcher said she was satisfied and would not pursue further action.

Philip Lo (羅一鈞), deputy head of the CECC’s medical response division, said the version of Delta experimented on had been sampled from imported cases in May and provided to Academia Sinica by the CECC. He confirmed it was the only strain of Delta provided to the institute by the CECC.

Academia Sinica President James Liao (廖俊智) said the purpose of the experiments on the variant samples was to test the effectiveness of vaccines.

When asked if an inspection had found traces of the virus inside the lab itself, the CECC head said that some tables, doorknobs, and other surfaces had tested positive for COVID, while all tests on facilities outside the lab were negative. He said it was possible the scientist had contracted the virus from the lab environment rather than the mouse bite.

Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) said the investigation is being slowed because all the researchers are undergoing isolation.