A researcher from the Pasteur Institute Korea (IPK) in Seoul brought samples taken during the country’s outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) on an intercontinental flight last year without the appropriate paperwork, hoping to get them studied at the Pasteur Institute (IP) in Paris. Both institutes have acknowledged the incident, which IP says was a breach in French biosafety protocol. But both say the trip never put anyone in danger, because the samples had undergone a treatment that would have killed any living virus.
The story was first reported earlier this month by English-speaking newspaper The Korea Times, which wrote that a researcher from IPK had transported samples containing the MERS virus on a Korean Air flight from Seoul to Paris on 11 October 2015—a few months after a MERS epidemic outbreak that sickened 186 people and killed 38 in South Korea. IPK “committed serious biosecurity breaches, which could have resulted in the loss of many lives, and tried to cover it up,” the newspaper alleged.
In a statement issued today, IPK sought to downplay the issue. A review conducted with IPK’s safety committee has shown that the samples were treated with glutaraldehyde fixative, a standard virus inactivation protocol, the statement says; as a result, they were noninfectious and did not need any special approval from the airline to be taken onto the flight. (The samples traveled in the aircraft’s baggage hold, the institute also says, not in the researcher’s cabin luggage, as The Korea Times claimed.)
IP in Paris—which is separate from 33 other Pasteur Institutes around the world—also says the newspaper’s story is inaccurate and says emails quoted in the piece that were attributed to IP President Christian Bréchot were not authentic. In a phone interview with ScienceInsider, Bréchot admitted that the import broke biosecurity rules, however, and that the samples were destroyed after arrival for that reason.
We did not even open the box. We do not know if the samples were infected in the first place, and even if they were, the cells were inactivated anyway.