Sloppy lab procedures caused a puzzling case of SARS in Singapore this month, according to an inquiry headed by Australian biosafety expert Anthony Della-Porta. The Singapore Ministry of Health released the panel's critical report today.
The patient, a 27-year-old virologist, worked on the West Nile virus in a biosafety level 3 lab at the Environmental Health Institute, where the SARS coronavirus was also studied (ScienceNOW, 10 September ). Because record-keeping was poor, it's difficult to tell whether live SARS virus was used in the lab on the days he worked there, the panel says, but contamination seems likely because a frozen West Nile sample he studied tested positive for the SARS virus. Moreover, the genome of the SARS virus that sickened him and the lab's strain matched closely.
The panel identified many safety lapses in the year-old lab--from missing biohazard stickers to spotty training practices--and recommended improving the air handling system and other structural changes in the building. The group also recommended that two of three other local microbial labs beef up biosafety. More broadly, the panel suggested that Singapore adopt legal standards for handling and transporting infectious agents--especially as the country aspires to become a biomedical boomtown.
The patient has fully recovered and appears not to have infected anybody else, according to the 11-member panel, calming fears that the case could trigger a new SARS outbreak.