A potentially lethal hybrid virus for which there was no vaccine or treatment could have infected research staff at a leading London university, had the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) not intervened to shut down the experiment, a court heard yesterday.
The "seriously flawed" approach to health and safety at Imperial College, in South Kensington, could have released a genetically-modified (GM) combination of Hepatitis C – which can be fatal – and dengue fever into the open.
Imperial College was fined £25,000 and ordered to pay £21,000 costs after pleading guilty to two offences involving health and safety.
The risk posed by the virus was put at Category 3 by the HSE – on a par with HIV and TB. The danger arose during an experiment at the St Mary School of Medicine, part of Imperial College in South Kensington. Researchers there were trying to create a genetically-modified hybrid with the aim of creating vaccines and eliminating animal testing.
But the HSE warned yesterday that in creating such a hybrid, the researchers would have produced an organism whose tropism – its target tissue in which it would reproduce – was unpredictable.
An unscheduled inspection by the HSE in December 1998 discovered that an experiment cabinet, which should contain the biological elements, was being wrongly used, ventilation systems were inadequate, there was no protection equipment to deal with a spillage, and there was no proper system for waste disposal.
In the first case of its kind brought under rules governing GM experiments, Imperial College pleaded guilty yesterday at Blackfriars Crown Court to one count of failing to apply "good microbiological practices and principles of good occupational safety and hygiene" under the Genetically Modified Organisms (Contained Use) Regulations 1992, and one of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in that it "did not ensure the safety at work of its employees".
Keith Morton, prosecuting, said that Imperial had "shown a disregard for basic measures to ensure and monitor safety, as a consequence of which their employees were exposed to a very real risk of infection."
Imperial College said that no disciplinary action was planned against Professor João Monjardino, who led the project. "He is no longer in charge of that kind of research," said a spokeswoman.
Imperial College said in a statement that "Hepatitis C infects 200 million people worldwide. This research... would speed up the search for a vaccine, and replace the use of animals." It stressed that "no member of the public was at risk at any time."
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