Sparks fly on Boston lab plan

Local residents say Boston University BSL-4 lab would be in too densely populated an area

By | May 5, 2004

Plans to build a high-security bioterrorism research laboratory at Boston University (BU) have split the local life sciences research community, pitting hundreds of scientists against one another.

Last September, the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) awarded about $120 million for BU to build the $178 million lab in Roxbury, a poor, densely populated part of the city's South End. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney support the project, which awaits the completion of state and federal environmental assessments and the approval of the Boston City Council.

Penn Loh, executive director of Roxbury's Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), told The Scientist the lab should not be built in Roxbury, because the area is more densely populated than that around any comparable US site already housing biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs.

A March report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that lab security in US universities is unsatisfactory, following on a September report by the US Department of Agriculture with similar conclusions. Construction of bioterrorism research labs has been a tough sell in other areas of the country as well.

Opponents to the BU lab cite a December 2000 memo written by NIAID's director of its division of intramural research stating that one important reason why a lab for NIAID employees should be built in Hamilton, Mont., was its sparsely populated location.

On April 18, 146 Massachusetts university professors sent a letter to the mayor and BU's trustees opposing the lab, claiming that the risk that human error or terrorist attacks might spread fatal bioweapon diseases outside the lab was too great to accept. Two days later, the university took out full-page ads in the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, giving 10 reasons to support the lab and listing 330 supporting scientists.

Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University has proposed that an independent panel of scientists and citizens be appointed to examine the scientific evidence and make a recommendation about building the lab. He has served on two such panels in neighboring Cambridge in the past, investigating the safety of DNA research in 1976 and examining the safety of a proposed chemical warfare research facility in the mid 1980s. Both worked extremely well, he said, the DNA panel allowing research with oversight and the chemical panel rejecting the weapons lab as too dangerous. “Boston should have brought together” such a group in this case, Krimsky told The Scientist.

Scientists who oppose building the lab have additional concerns beyond the density of the population. Robert Lamb, of the University of Chicago, said it is a bad idea to locate any high-level lab on a university campus, because they typically won't invest as much money as federally operated labs at places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do in running them. “Universities are always cutting corners afterwards to save money, because they're always broke,” he told The Scientist. “It's complex and it's cumbersome, and you need a huge support staff.”

David Ozonoff, a public health professor at BU, said he opposes the lab because it will steal from the public health research agenda. “The bioterrorism initiative is like a cancer,” he told The Scientist. “It's hollowing out pubic health from within.”

Loh said BU officials have been unresponsive, not releasing their NIAID proposal to opponents and city council members until mid April, more than a year after ACE began asking for it. The lab's principal investigator, associate provost Mark Klempner, told The Scientist that that BU had planned to release the 1500-page document “within a few days of the notice of the award” last September 30, but couldn't because of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by ACE.

It is unclear when the lab-building dispute will be resolved. Three members of city council have introduced an ordinance that would ban BSL-4 facilities citywide. According to Loh, the council should take up and vote on the ordinance next fall, while the environmental reviews should go through the summer and perhaps longer.

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