NIH OKs embattled Boston biolab

Opponents fail to block construction of new complex, containing BSL 2, 3 and 4 laboratories

By | February 3, 2006

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave its final approval yesterday for Boston University (BU) to build a research complex containing Biosafety Level 2, 3 and 4 laboratories on its medical campus in the city?s South End/Roxbury neighborhood. Construction on the seven-story National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) will begin early this month and should be completed by August 2008, BU officials announced yesterday in a staff memo. "We are proud to now be part of the national network of dedicated scientists and researchers who will use this state-of-the-art facility to safely find treatments and cures for some of the most dangerous infectious diseases that threaten Boston, the nation, and the world," the lab?s principal investigator, Mark Klempner, said in the memo, of which The Scientist obtained a copy. "NIAID is pleased that another milestone has been accomplished in Boston University's effort to construct a National Biocontainment Laboratory to conduct important research on infectious diseases," Rona Hirschberg, senior program officer in the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), said in a statement released yesterday (February 2). The biolab project has been controversial since September 2003, when NIAID chose Boston over other competing sites and promised $128 million toward the lab?s $178 million projected cost. Opponents claimed that research on Ebola and other incurable diseases should not be conducted in a congested urban environment. In April 2004, 146 Massachusetts university professors sent a letter to the mayor and BU?s trustees, saying the risk of human error or terrorist attacks was too great to accept. Controversy over the plan intensified in January 2005 when the university and the city revealed that three BU workers working in a lower-security lab had infected themselves with a lethal strain of tularemia the previous year, eventually recovering. NEIDL proponents?including BU?s acting medical campus provost Thomas Moore --claimed the tularemia accident is irrelevant, because researchers in the new facility will work in air-sealed moon suits in Biosafety Level four (BSL-4) labs, the most highly-engineered and secure facilities. The mayor and most of City Council support the lab, according to Klare Allen, spokesperson for Roxbury?s Safety Net, one of the groups leading the opposition. NIH says the project will provide 660 permanent jobs with a total annual income of $33 million. Opponents appear to be accepting defeat. "They will construct a building," Allen admitted. However, she and Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University in Boston who also opposes the lab, said they plan to shift their efforts, concentrating on ensuring the lab is operated as safely as possible. "We?re going to make sure they dot every ?i? and cross every ?t?," Allen said, adding that the Boston Public Health Commission is also considering a comprehensive set of new regulations to govern all 1,000 biology labs in the city. John Dudley Miller Links within this article National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories Record of Decision, Federal Register, February 2, 2006. J.D. Miller, "Sparks fly on Boston lab plan," The Scientist, May 5, 2004. Stop the Bioterrorism Lab, Alternatives in Community and Environment C. Kittredge, "BU BSL-4 lab faces more scrutiny," The Scientist, January 24, 2005. "Thomas Moore named acting provost at BUMC," BU Bridge, March 19, 2004. S. Smith, "Bacterium infected 3 at BU biolab," Boston Globe, January 19, 2005 Sheldon Krimsky

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