Via The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a March 31 article that is suddenly very timely: Threatened pandemics and laboratory escapes: Self-fulfilling prophecies. Click through for the full article with many links. It's a summary of a documented report published in February by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. Excerpt:
SARS outbreaks after the SARS epidemic. The 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak spread to 29 countries, causing more than 8,000 infections and at least 774 deaths. Because 21 percent of cases involved hospital workers, it had the potential to shut down health care services wherever it struck. It is particularly dangerous to handle in the laboratory because there is no vaccine, and it can be transmitted via aerosols.
Moreover, about five percent of SARS patients are “super-spreaders” who infect eight or more secondary cases. For instance, one patient spread SARS directly to 33 others (reflecting an infection rate of 45 percent) during a hospitalization, ultimately leading to the infection of 77 people, including three secondary super-spreaders. A super-spreader could turn even a single laboratory infection into a potential pandemic.
SARS has not re-emerged naturally, but there have been six escapes from virology labs: one each in Singapore and Taiwan, and four separate escapes at the same laboratory in Beijing.
The first was in Singapore in August 2003, in a virology graduate student at the National University of Singapore. He had not worked directly with SARS, but it was present in the laboratory where he worked. He recovered and produced no secondary cases. The World Health Organization formed an expert committee to revise SARS biosafety guidelines.
The second escape was in Taiwan in December 2003, when a SARS research scientist fell ill on a return flight after attending a medical meeting in Singapore. His 74 contacts in Singapore were quarantined, but again, fortunately, none developed SARS. Investigation revealed the scientist had handled leaking biohazard waste without gloves, a mask, or a gown. Ironically, the WHO expert committee called for augmented biosafety in SARS laboratories the day after this case was reported.
In April 2004, China reported a case of SARS in a nurse who had cared for a researcher at the Chinese National Institute of Virology (NIV). While ill, the researcher had traveled twice by train from Beijing to Anhui province, where she was nursed by her mother, a physician, who fell ill and died. The nurse in turn infected five third-generation cases, causing no deaths.
Subsequent investigation uncovered three unrelated laboratory infections in different researchers at the NIV. At least of two primary patients had never worked with live SARS virus.
Many shortcomings in biosecurity were found at the NIV, and the specific cause of the outbreak was traced to an inadequately inactivated preparation of SARS virus that was used in general (that is, not biosecure) laboratory areas, including one where the primary cases worked. It had not been tested to confirm its safety after inactivation, as it should have been.