Exploding HIV vial was not a risk

August 23, 2002

Health inspectors were called to Cambridge University after a vial containing an HIV virus protein exploded in a genetic-modification containment facility, the Health and Safety Executive has confirmed.

The incident, which was not thought to have endangered anyone, was one of a number of accidents at Cambridge last year - including one death - according to the annual report of the university's health and safety committee. Although Cambridge has refused to discuss any details, the HSE said it made a number of recommendations for safety improvements at Cambridge, but no enforcement action was necessary.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said that a PhD student had been working in the genetic-modification unit of the university's medical school. He was using a vial containing an HIV vector protein when it exploded.

The HSE spokeswoman said that as the researcher was not working with a complete virus, there was no risk of him or of anyone else contracting the virus, he had been wearing the appropriate protective clothing and the laboratory was correctly fumigated.

A Cambridge spokeswoman said: "We followed the standard procedures and reported this to the Health and Safety Executive. It investigated, as is standard procedure, and produced a report. No enforcements were issued against the university."

The university's health and safety committee says that the incident was "the only item of significance from the enforcement viewpoint", but it also reports a number of other safety problems in its annual report this week.

The report says that there was a fatality after an accident in the stairwell in the arts school that led the HSE to "suggest actions that have now been taken".

The report says that, in a separate incident, the university was inspected by the HSE in July 2001 "as immediate follow-up to an incident involving a silane pressure burst in the department of engineering". Silane is a flammable gas, prone to spontaneous combustion in air, used in manufacturing solar panels and semiconductors.

"Discussions with the local inspector have occurred intermittently since then, and are continuing," the health and safety committee reports.

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