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Chinese University Fires Administrators, Offers Compensation After Lab Accident

On the heels of a damaging laboratory outbreak that sickened 27 students, leaders at China's Northeast Agricultural University last week dismissed two administrators, apologized for insufficient safety practices, and offered thousands of dollars in compensation to the students, who contracted brucellosis while dissecting goats in an anatomy course last December.

The announcement came as welcome news to some students, who have been complaining of debilitating weakness, headaches, and joint pain since March. But others have refused the compensation and are apparently gearing up for a lengthy battle.

The incident has highlighted funding problems and poor infrastructure conditions at China's lesser known universities and research institutions, prompting calls for greater oversight. It occurred in a laboratory at the university's College of Veterinary Medicine, in the city of Harbin. Under the supervision of four instructors and two assistants, 110 students gathered to dissect four goats obtained from a local farm. A few months later, students began showing symptoms of brucellosis, an infection caused in goats by the bacteria Brucella melitensis. One student became too weak to walk, according to Shanghai Daily. An instructor also contracted the disease.

University administrators now admit the goats were not properly quarantined prior to reaching the lab and that instructors did not follow standard safety procedures. Infected students told the Chinese press that they did not receive safety training ahead of the dissections. One told the newspaper Southern Weekend that after a classmate asked about safety equipment, one instructor discouraged the group from wearing gloves, pointing out that he had been dissecting animals with his bare hands for 30 years. Several students then declined to wear gloves, the student said.

Precautions "weren't so strict," another student told China National Radio. "There weren't any specific disinfectant requirements." Both students declined to give their names.

To limit damage at the veterinary college, Northeast Agricultural University administrators dismissed both the dean and the school's Communist Party secretary and offered 61,000 yuan ($9545) to each student in tuition waivers, medical fees, and compensation. In a press conference on 5 September, Vice President Feng Xiao bowed before news cameras and apologized to students and their parents on behalf of the university.

But the case is far from wrapped up for some students. At the time of the press conference, just 17 of the 27 infected students had accepted the compensation package. Some are asking for more than five times the proffered amount, according to China Daily.

Laboratory safety emerged as a prominent issue in China in 2004, when a series of missteps at China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention led to a renewed outbreak of severe acute respiratory sickness (SARS). The health ministry later issued a report describing safety infractions, and the center's director and a deputy resigned. In the aftermath of the outbreak, China introduced stringent national laboratory biosafety regulations. But the Northeast Agricultural University incident has shed light on lingering problems in the country's less esteemed institutions. The billions the Chinese government has lately spent on science and higher education has mostly gone toward creating an elite group of research institutions and universities. That selective funding, University of Hong Kong education scholar Gerry Postiglione wrote in an e-mail, has "left second and third tier universities in an abysmal financial state, leading many with no choice but to cut corners on cost and quality."

Basic safety is apparently one of the areas to have suffered. In a survey of 231 fourth-year medical students published in the Chinese journal Northwest Medical Education in 2010, 19% were unfamiliar with the term "laboratory biosafety." Seventy-nine percent had heard the term but weren't completely sure what it meant.

Some Chinese commentators now say nothing short of an overhaul of the country's higher education system is necessary. They are arguing that universities place too much emphasis on rewarding scientists who publish in prestigious journals—and that officials and administrators should pay more attention to enabling students and scientists to safely carry out their research.