BU BSL-4 lab faces more scrutiny

Infections of three lab workers with tularemia at BSL-2 lab puts plan in spotlight again

By | January 24, 2005

The city of Boston plans to toughen up laboratory safety protocols after revelations that three Boston University (BU) researchers were accidentally infected with a lethal strain of tularemia they thought was harmless.

The illnesses last year were made public January 18 by university and public health authorities, a day before a "dirty bomb" scare rocked the city. That was some 2 months after BU reported the cases to public health officials.

Word of the contaminations—two last May and one in September—and the delay in making them public intensified controversy over plans to build a $178 million Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) research lab at BU in a crowded urban neighborhood.

Some critics accused authorities of delaying the revelations until after public hearings on the BSL-4 lab, which earlier this month won approval from the city's zoning commission.

While federal investigators probed how a deadly strain of tularemia wound up in a BSL-2 BU lab where researchers were working on a vaccine against the disease, BU officials blamed the lab researchers, who apparently inhaled the bacterium, for lax lab procedures. Investigators suspect that a naturally occurring lethal strain of tularemia supplied to BU by a University of Nebraska lab had contaminated the animal blood used to grow the bacterium, according to The Boston Globe.

Since then, the Boston Public Health Commission, which regulates Boston's research labs and grants them permits for DNA research, announced plans for more stringent lab safety measures. Some 30 institutions in Boston have some 800 BSL-2 labs, about 12 BSL-3 labs, but no BSL-4 labs yet, health commission spokeswoman Kristin O'Connor told The Scientist.

This spring, the commission plans to launch mandatory training for institutions that employ lab workers, with a focus on reporting illness in researchers. In the next 60 days, the commission also plans to hire a new lab safety inspector and form a new panel of top Boston scientists to beef up lab safety regulations.

"One of the first things they will look at is whether there needs to be a regulation that says when you get an organism into your lab, it is what you ordered," O'Connor told The Scientist. "Another thing is whether we need a medical surveillance system for lab workers. Right now, state law says that if healthcare providers suspect an infectious disease, they need to report it. We're looking at whether to go farther than that."

Already, O'Connor said, Boston public health regulations bar Level 4 labs from doing recombinant DNA research because "they work with very deadly organisms."

But while BU officials defended the institution's safety record, the flap provoked an outcry from neighborhood groups and a call for transparency from some scientists and activists. "One of the fundamental issues is trust," said David Ozonoff, a professor of Environmental Health at the BU School of Public Health.

"The Achilles' heel is always the human element," Ozonoff told The Scientist. "People take shortcuts, and usually nothing happens. Sometimes, things happen and nobody finds out about it. And sometimes, things happen and everybody finds out, and this is an example."

Thomas Finneran, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, told The Scientist the BSL-4 lab will add to Boston's cachet as a biotech hub and contribute to the nation's defense. "I think there's a strong sense in the biotech community in Mass. that this is a very important tool or asset to the national preparation for the challenges for illness, disease or terrorism," said Finneran, a former Massachusetts House Speaker who recently testified on the lab's behalf before the city zoning board.

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