An IPK virologist transported samples of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus to the Institut Pasteur in Paris on Oct. 11, 2015, without alerting the health authorities of any country.
Her actions, including transporting the hazardous materials in the cabin of a commercial airplane, are not only a violation of the U.N.'s Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) but also a violation of French laws on infectious disease control.
Christian Brechot, president of the Institut Pasteur that has 33 research institutions worldwide, was apparently aware of the incident. In his email to the virologist, he said, "You failed to alert both Korean and France authorities about transporting them on a commercial plane risking many lives."
Referring to evidence of surveillance camera footage, which shows the virologist taking the samples from an IPK lab without following proper procedures, Brechot also noted, "The p3 security movie is very compelling against you … the situation on the MERS cover-up investigation is not good for you or myself," proposing her to "start fresh" in Paris.
The "cover-up investigation" was conducted under the watch of Roberto Bruzzone, interim CEO of IPK. In the IPK's recent internal inspection of the case, it concluded that all procedures involving the MERS virus were carried out properly.
But Felix Rey, a senior virologist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, also learned of her biosecurity breach upon receiving her email saying that she brought the samples there.
In his email to the Korean virologist, Rey said the MERS coronavirus "requires a special procedure to import the samples, which cannot be manipulated without previous authorization of a national agency which supervises all pathogens."
Then, he told her that the samples were destroyed immediately.
It is not clear whether the samples of the airborne disease affected the passengers on Korean Air flight 901 bound for Paris from Incheon International Airport that day.
Last year, 38 of 186 MERS patients in Korea died, despite the government's all-out efforts to contain the disease. Its fatality rate was 20.4 percent.
A former IPK official, who provided information and evidence for the unreported case to The Korea Times, said it was "the worst breach of biosecurity I could imagine."
Under the GHS, in order to transport hazardous material by air cargo, one must inform the airline about the contents; it is also required to report to the health authorities at the destination.
If the virologist's containers carrying the samples were ruptured, potentially the virus could have infected many passengers, as the confined space and re-circulated air of the cabin provides the right conditions for the virus to spread quickly.
"Her actions were a serious threat not only to the local public but also to global safety, and are an example of how safety is governed and managed in Korea," the whistleblower said.
The whistleblower also claimed to have reported her actions to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which apparently sent a delegation to the IPK to investigate the case later but took no further action.
"Not surprising they want this incident covered up especially since it happened during the MERS crisis in Korea," the whistleblower said.
An official from the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said that transporting MERS samples to another country is not a violation of Korean law, although it may be a violation of international rules for air transport. The responsibility of handling such materials falls on the countries that receive them, he said.
Public relations officials from Incheon International Airport and Korean Air said that although biohazardous materials are not allowed as carry-on luggage, they cannot prevent people who try to do so because such materials ― neither sharp nor liquid ― can slip through airport security screening.
Brechot and the Korean virologist in question declined to respond to interview requests from The Korea Times.