Imperial rapped over handling of HIV

December 8, 2000

Imperial College has pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety regulations for handling the HIV virus in an unsafe laboratory, writes Phil Baty.

The London University college could face an unlimited fine after it admitted in the Marylebone Magistrates Court this week that it breached rules on the handling of hazardous biological agents under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations, 1994. The case has been referred to the Crown Court for sentencing.

The Health and Safety Executive brought the prosecution after its specialist inspectors visited the university's laboratories in March 1999. It found that an HIV propagation laboratory did not meet the safety requirements for handling the virus.

HIV is a "level three" biological hazard on a rising four-level scale. Under regulations covering the use of biological agents in laboratories and veterinary care facilities, a number of "containment measures" must be undertaken before handling the virus.

The HSE alleged that Imperial had breached one key compulsory containment requirement - "that the workplace is to be sealable to permit disinfection". It said the laboratory could not be fumigated as it was not properly sealable.

Magistrates can impose a maximum fine of £5,000 per offence under the regulations, but Crown Courts can impose an unlimited fine.

A spokeswoman for Imperial College said the college could not comment because the case will be heard in the Crown Court.

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