COVID Lab Leak Probe After Scientist Bitten by Infected Animal

Taiwanese officials are investigating links between a mouse bite and a COVID-19 infection in Taiwan, after a laboratory worker tested positive for the virus last week.

Health officials are scrambling to investigate how the worker at Academia Sinica's Genomics Research Center, a high-security laboratory, became infected with COVID-19 as the island's borders remain shut.

The worker, a fully vaccinated woman in her 20s, tested positive for COVID-19 last week after coming into contact with the virus at the country's top research institute in mid-November.

Taiwan has reported just above 16,700 local cases and 848 deaths in total. The island's last locally transmitted case was on November 5, AFP reported.

Authorities have confirmed that the woman had been bitten twice by mice that had been infected with the virus. It is unclear whether the mouse bites are responsible for the woman testing positive for COVID-19.

"Whether it is from the workplace or community, we believe the possibility of infection from the workplace is higher because we have zero confirmed infections in the community," said Taiwan's health minister, Chen Shih-chung.

"As for inside the workplace, whether it is in the office or laboratory, we determined the laboratory has a higher risk. But whether the infection is from the [mouse] bite or the environment, we need to investigate further."

Officials said the laboratory worker had no recent travel history, and is believed to have contracted the highly infectious delta variant of COVID-19.

Chen said the woman, who resigned from her position earlier this month, had 94 close contacts after infection, and 80 have since tested negative for COVID-19. He noted that as the majority of her contacts have tested negative, her case is unlikely to spark an outbreak.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low, but notes that the virus can spread from people to animals during close contact.

"At this time, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to people," the federal agency said.

The CDC said further research is needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19.

Earlier this month, two hippos at a zoo in Antwerp, Belgium, tested positive for COVID-19. The zoo's veterinarian Francis Vercammen said in a news release that it was believed to be the first known contamination in the species. Other animals known to have contracted COVID-19 include big cats, ferrets, minks and primates, according to the CDC.

The agency advises people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 to avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife.

Small experimental mouse on the researcher's hand
Stock image of experimental mouse on researcher's hands. Taiwanese officials are probing links between a mouse bite and a COVID-19 infection in Taiwan, after a laboratory worker tested positive for the virus. Stock Photo/Getty Images