April 23, 2004 -- Chinese health officials have confirmed four suspected cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), including one death, which appear to have been caused by a safety breach at a laboratory studying the SARS virus.
It's the first SARS death reported since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the initial SARS outbreak more than nearly a year ago. From November 2002 until July 2003, the newly discovered respiratory disease sickened more than 8,000 people in 29 countries and killed nearly 800.
The Chinese Ministry of Health says they have clinical confirmation of SARS coronavirus infection in two of the four suspected SARS cases. They are a 20-year-old nurse in Bejing who is currently in intensive care and a 26-year-old female laboratory researcher from Anhui Province.
If confirmed by an independent international reference lab, this would be the third outbreak of SARS to be traced back to inadequate laboratory safety procedures. Two cases of SARS have been reported in laboratory workers in Singapore and Taiwan since the first outbreak ended.
Outbreak Tied to SARS Lab in Beijing
Officials say the researcher worked at the Chinese National Institute of Virology in Beijing, which is part of China's Center for Disease Control, for two weeks in March. This institute is known to be conducting research involving the SARS coronavirus.
The researcher became ill on March 25 and was cared for by the 20-year-old nurse and her mother. The mother became ill with symptoms consistent with SARS on April 8 and died on April 19.
The fourth suspected SARS case is a 31-year-old laboratory researcher who also worked at the same Beijing institute. He developed symptoms of SARS on April 17 and was hospitalized in isolation on April 22.
Further laboratory testing on the two unconfirmed SARS cases are being conducted by Chinese authorities, according to the WHO.
The Geneva-based U.N. agency says it's working closely with Chinese health officials to confirm the status and full extent of this cluster of SARS cases to prevent further spread of the disease.
The WHO says the situation is considered "potentially serious because of the multiple opportunities for exposures." To date, more than 300 contacts have been identified and placed under medical observation in China.
The CDC says it's monitoring the evolving situation in China and will provide updates on its web site as information becomes available.