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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Oct. 8)

All News 09:14 October 08, 2016

WHO should act
Pasteur's cover-up sets dangerous precedent

Be alerted, Dr. Margaret Chan! Your World Health Organization (WHO) has a job to do.

Don't stall and make things worse as you did with the Ebola epidemic in Africa or the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Korea. The WHO is well positioned to deal with this big health risk, so rise to the occasion.

The Korea Times reported in its Oct. 6 edition a whistleblower's account of a virologist at the Institut Pasteur (IP) Korea who took a sample of the MERS virus ― without authorization last October ― as part of her carry-on baggage on a commercial flight from Seoul to Paris.

Immediately after the report, IPK interim CEO Roberto Bruzzone emailed his employees, telling them to sit tight. But later he said, "This short document summarizes the facts based on the best available evidence." He referred to a recent internal check by the safety committee under his watch that found no regulations broken, and in contrast to the January investigation leading to the Korean virologist dismissal. He reinstated her in March. He ended his message by saying, "There is nothing else to add unless any of you has any other information."

The IPK chief obviously didn't want to take up the allegation anew. It seems that the Korean government accepted IPK's report with few questions. Korean Air also was averse to the revelation that its Flight 901 on Oct. 11, 2015, was used for this transfer of the virus.

The institute in Paris kept quiet, ignoring our repeated questions. Felix Rey, the chief virologist, was the supposed recipient of the samples. His Korean counterpart left the samples in the care of Rey's secretary when he was absent. Rey sent her an email indicating the breach of pertinent regulations against the unauthorized transfer of pathogens through public transportation, but added that they were destroyed.

IP Paris President Christian Brechot, Rey's boss, knew about the whole affair as he emailed her about her failure to report the samples' transfer by the KAL flight, saying the act was "risking many lives." The MERS epidemic swept Korea last year, killing 38 of 186 patients and virtually shutting down the nation for months. The disease was spread through close contact between patients, their family and health workers.

We have not been able to establish whether Brechot notified the French authorities or whether they were made aware of this potential disaster in any other way.

Therefore, checking the Times' report and setting follow-up measures should be WHO's job. First, it is a cover-up attempt actively or passively by all parties concerned. It is imperative to track MERS trails from the samples and verify whether any cases were related to them.

If it is allowed to pass without due action, it would set a dangerous precedent, with people's lives at stake. It is not just about a mad scientist doing whatever it takes to get famous. God forbid, just imagine that terrorists smuggled pathogens undetected onto a transnational commercial flight. The potential risk could go beyond the passengers on board and reach many times their number through secondary and tertiary contagion.

So we need no less than a stringent set of protocols.

Lastly, during the MERS epidemic in Korea, the WHO was late in getting involved, which forfeited the country's chance to deal with the disease sooner and more effectively. Don't make the same mistake when people's lives could be at stake.

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