[BEIJING] Five officials at China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have lost their jobs this week in fallout from the renewed outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that shook China earlier this year.
Their departure, which followed the publication of the results of a joint investigation carried out by China's ministry of health and the World Health Organisation (WHO), represents the first time that top research institute officials have resigned or been fired in China due to their managerial failures.
CDC director Li Liming and his deputy director Yang Xiaoguang both resigned. Meanwhile the ministry of health also removed from their positions Ruan Li, director of the CDC's National Institute of Virology, Ruan's deputy director, and the director of the diarrhoea research department.
"The punishment of these officials shows our determination in strengthening public health," Chinese vice-premier and health minister Wu Yi said, announcing the job losses. "And it shows our strong sense of responsibility towards protecting the health of researchers and all residents."
The 2004 SARS outbreak began in March, when it is believed that the virus escaped from a laboratory at the virology institute. But the escape was only reported on 22 April. One person died and nine were infected before WHO declared in May that the outbreak had been contained.
According to the report of the joint investigation, the use of inactivated SARS coronavirus in a laboratory at the National Institute of Virology seems to have been the most plausible cause for the outbreak. The laboratory had not adequately tested the virus to ensure it had been effectively inactivated.
According to the WHO, at least four individuals may have been infected with SARS at the institute. The report also concludes that the CDC failed to report immediately its researchers' abnormal health conditions. This led to further infection among their family members and a roommate in a local hospital in Beijing.
In the wake of the new outbreak, and the deficiencies in laboratory safety procedures that it has highlighted, China is taking a number of measures to ensure adequate biosafety policies are adopted across the country.
On 28 May, for example, the government released new guidelines on laboratory procedures guidelines that will come into effect in October. In addition, the state council — China's governing cabinet — is drafting a special regulation on the safe handling of biological materials in laboratories, said Wu.
Meanwhile, the WHO says it will be working with its member states and expert groups to develop national and regional strategies for strengthening biosafety.
Central components are likely to include a reduction in the number of laboratories storing and working with the SARS coronavirus, a legislative framework, an independent advisory body to help develop national biosafety programmes, and a laboratory accreditation system, based on standardised biosafety criteria.
The SARS epidemic is also claiming government casualties elsewhere in Asia. Hong Kong's secretary for health Yeoh Eng-kiong, one of several officials accused in a recent report of mishandling last year's SARS crisis, was reported to have resigned on Wednesday (7 July).