SARS Crisis Topples China Lab Chief

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

SARS has sent the head of another top official in China rolling. Yesterday, director Li Liming of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) resigned, along with several lower-ranking officials, after a report by a panel of experts blamed China's most recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome on a series of flaws at the CDC's National Institute of Virology in southern Beijing.

The outbreak earlier this year, which sickened eight people in Beijing and Anhui Province and killed one (ScienceNOW, 27 April), started when two workers at the CDC lab, independently from each other, developed SARS. The most likely source of their infection, the report concludes, is a batch of supposedly inactivated SARS virus that was brought from a high-containment facility into a low-safety diarrhea research lab where the two were working. Apparently, the inactivation process--adding a mix of detergents to the virus--did not work properly, according to the study, of which only a five-paragraph summary has been released. In a breach of standard safety procedures, the researcher who carried out the inactivation--identified only by a family name, "Ren"--had not tested whether the virus was truly inactive, according to the panel.

Some scientists hailed the report and Li's resignation. "This is a clear sign to Chinese scientists and the rest of the world that the Chinese government is taking [biosafety] seriously," says Guan Yi, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. But others are disappointed that many details about the incident and the lab's operating procedures remain hidden. "I was hoping for a full, more open account of what happened," says Tony Della-Porta, an Australian biosafety consultant who helped investigate earlier SARS escapes in Singapore and Taiwan.

The government immediately named Wang Yu, currently deputy director of rural and social development within the Ministry of Science and Technology, as the new CDC director. A medical doctor and researcher trained at China Medical University and Nihon University in Tokyo, Wang has held a number of administrative positions and is a representative of a "new generation" of more open and competent Chinese leaders, says virologist David Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City, who recently met him. "I hope the Chinese government gives him enough support to put the CDC on the right track," adds Guan.

--LEI DU and MARTIN ENSERINK With reporting by Dennis Normile in Tokyo.Related site
WHO press release about the investigation

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