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College Fined Over Virus Risk

A top research institute has been ordered to pay almost $65,000 in fines and legal fees for risking the release of a potentially deadly hybrid virus. Government inspectors had charged Imperial College London with breaking health and safety rules in a study that involved the creation of a chimera of the hepatitis C and dengue fever viruses, both of which cause severe illness. On 23 July, a crown court judge found the college guilty of failing to adequately protect laboratory workers and the public.

Hepatitis C is difficult to study because it does not replicate well in the lab. A molecular biology group led by John Monjardino was trying to create a stable form of hepatitis C to speed research into vaccines and new drugs. The group hoped to coax the virus to grow by splicing in a number of key dengue fever genes.

The experiment ended after inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) filed a devastating report on safety violations, following a laboratory inspection in 1998. Specialist Inspector Simon Warne says HSE found inadequate safety cabinets, a lack of proper equipment to fumigate the laboratory, poor facilities for waste disposal, and "confused, inadequate, and apparently untested" onsite lab rules.

Scientists in the project declined comment, but Imperial College issued a statement expressing regret and emphasizing that no one was hurt. A spokesperson says that since the safety breach was identified, the college has hired extra staff devoted to monitoring and safety, and that it does not intend to continue work in this area.

Predicting the virulence of a hybrid virus is tricky, scientists say, and for that reason this work requires the highest safety standards. "The problem," says Richard Sullivan, an expert on bioweapons issues at University College London, is that "no matter how cautious you are, you get situations where you create something of a far higher risk than predicted." A striking example: In January, Australian researchers accidentally created a highly deadly mousepox virus (Science, 26 January, p. 585).