Covid sample 'left in coat pocket' by scientist at top secret lab

A secretive UK research laboratory recorded a string of safety incidents including a Covid sample being left in a coat pocket.

The material was found at Porton Down after ‘sterilization’, according to a response to questions under the Freedom of Information Act.

The series of incidents at the facility – where cutting edge research is being undertaken into live samples of the Omicron variant – also included another sample of the virus not being ‘correctly inactivated’.

A further breach involved a leaking vial during Covid research, according to the report by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The complex is used to store some of the most dangerous pathogens and chemical agents in the world and is considered one of the most secure places in the country, with some of the work taking place amid high secrecy in Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Critical research takes place into viruses including Covid and others such as Ebola, which is considered even more dangerous, and Bubonic Plague.

Chemical agents, which have included Novichock, used in the 2018 attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, are also examined at the facility in more secretive work by the Dstl.

One of the disclosed incidents relating to Covid, which were recorded in the ‘biological safety’ category, took place in July 2020, the newly released document shows.

The log reads: ‘Covid-19 sample not correctly inactivated. No loss of safety containment, sample destroyed by normal processes.’

The following month another incident was recorded in the list – part of the agency’s procedure for avoiding ‘near misses’ – in 2020.

The report states: ‘Covid-19 sample container found to have small crack.

‘Container safely disposed of via appropriate means. No loss of containment.’

In October, a sample of the virus was found in a surgical garment.

The report states: ‘Covid-19 test sample found in pocket of lab coat following safety sterilization.’

The final report relating to Covid samples was made in November 2020.

The log reads: ‘Vial leaked in centrifuge whilst handling Covid-19 sample.

‘Task safety was conducted in a CL3 containment laboratory and there was no loss of containment.’

Other recorded biological safety incidents investigated at the research centre included a visitor being observed drinking water in a lab despite outside belongings not being allowed inside.

The log reads: ‘Visitors were not informed that they should not take belongings into a CL2 laboratory.

‘One visitor was subsequently witnessed drinking water from their water bottle in the laboratory but stopped when challenged.

‘Visit lead handled laboratory equipment without gloves or washing hands.‘

The list of nine incidents also includes those categorised under the separate heading of ‘chemical safety’. One, which took place in March 2020, involved the more secretive work at the location, the only place in the UK where people are permitted to make chemical weapons.

The report reads: ‘The lid came away from the outer container of a selection of safety chemical warfare agents, there were no breakages or spills of the internal containers and no loss of containment.’

Covid research has become an increased part of the centre’s focus since the pandemic took hold at the start of 2020.

In May 2021, the government announced that ‘state of the art’ laboratories costing £29.3 million were to be built on the site to test current and new Covid vaccines.

In its response to the Freedom of Information Act questions, the Dstl said: ‘We can confirm that there were no injuries or disciplinary action taken as a result of the incidents listed above.’

The government agency, which is headquartered at Porton Down, has a stated remit that includes providing ‘sensitive and specialist science and technology’ services to the MoD.

Further questions were denied under exemptions relating to personal data and national security.

The reply continues: ‘The events were reported via the Dstl process for reporting incidents, which assesses the severity of the incident and applies an investigation process proportional to this severity, resulting in corrective actions being applied.

‘This process is a key element of Dstl’s drive to continually improve our ways of working aiming to learn from near misses and prevent serious accidents from occurring.’

At the height of the pandemic, the Dstl was tasked to rapidly establish a Covid diagnostic laboratory, where it processed 72,276 samples over a 12-month period.

A spokesperson said: ‘The safety of Dstl staff and the public is our highest priority and we have a robust reporting system. The incidents referred to did not pose any risk due to our strict safety systems.’

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