TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – A torn plastic trash bag that leaked liquid contaminated with the SARS virus was the likely cause of Taiwan’s first infection in five months, investigators said Friday.

The bag was handled by the 44-year-old scientist who apparently became infected in his military laboratory while studying how Chinese medicinal herbs affect the highly contagious virus, investigator Chang Shang-tsun said at a news conference.

Chang declined to say whether the laboratory was properly run by the scientist, identified only by his rank and surname, Lt. Col. Chan. The investigation results were preliminary and the researcher will be questioned further once he recovers, he said.

“You can’t blame him. His workload was very heavy,” Chang said.

The mishap happened when the scientist was cleaning his Taipei lab on Dec. 6 – four days before he developed a fever and other SARS symptoms, said Chang, an official at National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei.

When the scientist found the ripped bag, he assumed it had been leaking for several days and he placed it on a trash cart, Chang said.

“The investigators think the researcher thought the virus had already lost its effectiveness,” Chang said.

Two positive samples of the virus were found in the lab during an inspection Thursday, he said. One was on the handle of an alcohol spray bottle, and the other was on a light switch on a glass cabinet that contained materials used in experiments.

Chang said investigators still have to ask the scientist whether he was wearing protective gloves and a gown. But he added that Chan’s lab was designed so that researchers do not have to wear such safety gear constantly.

So far, no other SARS infections have been reported, even though Chan traveled to Singapore on Dec. 7 after being exposed to the virus. More than 100 people who had close contact with him in Taiwan and Singapore have been quarantined.

During the global SARS outbreak last spring and summer, more than 8,000 people were infected and 774 died.

The scientist also risked starting an outbreak by not immediately going to the hospital after developing a fever upon his return from Singapore on Dec. 10. Chan quarantined himself at home until Dec. 16 and relied on his father for food and other care.

His father said in an interview with CTI cable news that his son knew early on that he might have SARS. But he delayed going to the hospital because he didn’t want to panic the public and disgrace Taiwan.

“He was thinking of the country,” said the father, who was also identified only by his surname, Chan. “He’s a military man, and military men are bound by a natural duty.”

The father said he pleaded with his son to seek treatment. As the scientist’s condition worsened, his father said he threatened to commit suicide if he didn’t get help.

The local media have criticized Chan for endangering the public by not seeking early treatment. But investigators urged people not to judge him harshly.

and to recognize his courage and willingness to work with SARS.

“This is a fearful virus and there aren’t many people willing to handle it,” Chang said.

AP-ES-12-19-03 2131EST

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