Safety Net group gives recommendations on Biolab; BU is hopeful they don’t need them
The Haley House was packed full of attendees as Boston residents vied for a seat in the cramped café and waited for the agenda to start. It was July 19, 6pm, and the Roxbury Safety Net & STOP the BU Bio-Terror Lab Coalition (Safety Net) meeting was about to begin.
Run by Roxbury resident Klare Allen and with the support of former 9th Suffolk state representative, Boston’s first African American mayoral candidate and community activist Mel King, the Safety Net began back in 2000, when Roxbury residents joined together to commit themselves to ensuring healthy development in their neighborhoods.
According to documents distributed at the Monday meeting, the BU Biolab, or National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL), was proposed by Boston University (BU) 2003. Granted $128 million by the National Institute of Health (NIH), BU was given the go-ahead to construct NEIDL, a building that would encompass a Biosafety Level 4 (BSL 4) laboratory. The CDC website states that BSL-4 is used for a "the diagnosis of exotic agents that pose a high risk of life-threatening disease, which may be transmitted by the aerosol route and for which there is no vaccine or therapy."
Since then, the project has been surrounded in controversy. The lab, which planned to study diseases and viruses like Ebola and the plague, has drawn residents, politicians, peace and justice groups, unions, associations, neighborhood councils and task forces into an eight-year struggle against BU, the BRA (which approved a environmental risk assessment on the NEIDL that was found to be lacking) and NIH (which submitted a Draft Supplemental Risk Assessment - of SAR - that the independent National Research Council found to be not credible in a peer review).
The filing of multiple lawsuits in 2003 stalled the lab’s work, even as construction continued, and in 2008, the NIH created a Blue Ribbon Panel, a group of independent scientists and experts that would advise NIH in determining the scope of additional environmental risk assessments. Initially set to finish the new risk assessment by April 2009, the completion date has since been pushed back to December 2010.
The meeting Monday night was the first large gathering after an April meeting with the Blue Ribbon Panel at the Copley Square Marriot, where residents heard presentations on how the risk assessment would be conducted, commented on the project itself and explained their positions against the laboratory.
Allen said she was pleased the after years of being labeled complainers while raising awareness and educating the community, she was happy the group could share a solution with the city.
Tonight, Allen said, "We’re not complaining, we’re not bitching, we’re not crying, we’re saying here’s a solution."
That solution, described in the two-page document An Alternative Vision for the Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, centers on the idea of researching "prevalent natural disease" and "adopting new, safe vaccine and antimicrobial technologies." The report lists several pathogens BU could focus on (Streptococcus pneumoniae and Chlamydia trachomatis are named) as well as viruses "responsible for respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, and sexually transmitted diseases." It calls on BU to use newer vaccine technologies that have an emphasis on "oral antiviral and antibacterial drugs."
While describing the alternative vision at the meeting, Lynn Klotz, Ph.D., spoke to the many reasons the lab shouldn’t be doing BSL-4 work. A former Harvard University faculty member and current independent biotechnology industry consultant, Klotz noted that human error, mechanical failure, employees with hostile intent or mental issues and transportation were all factors that could put the general Boston population, specifically Roxbury residents, at risk of infection from the studied pathogens. Klotz added that the research that would be done in the lab was "worthless" to Boston, the United States and the world as a whole.
"[What BU has planned] only has very marginal value in Africa and India," he said, adding that viruses like Ebola and Marburg are only found in places like Africa and India, where they cause "less than 50 deaths" every year.
Klotz also explained that BSL-4 lab workers were required to have years of experience and schooling, meaning the lab would provide no economic benefit to the community. He also said that the research initially intended to be done at the Biolab had already been extensively worked on in other labs, which did open around 2003.
Nurse attorney for the Massachusetts Nurses Association Mary Crotty, RN, JD, who also spoke at the event, said that the risks of the lab were further compounded by the proposed location.
"We view the attempted placement of a lab - a lab which is studying some of the world’s more dangerous pathogens, most of which have no cure - on the site of a hospital, in a densely crowded urban location, next to a major highway, on a flight path to the airport, I mean, can you pick a worse site?" she asked, also noting that a similar lab had been placed in Galvestion, a hurricane barrier island. It was then hit by a hurricane in 2008.
Literature at the event also noted the mistakes BU labs have made in the past-from a 2007 firein a BSL-3 lab’s sterilizing machine that was not reported to the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) immediately to a 2004 incident where BU failed to report a possible case of tularemia exposure to the BPHC to a 2009 incident where a graduate student in a BSL-2 lab got a bacterial infection from a laboratory experiment.
The South End News asked Ellen Berlin, BU spokesperson, about the safety of the BSL-4 lab in regard to these past incidents.
"One of the things we’ve always stated is the reason you do work in a level four laboratory is because it’s so controlled and with every level of safety...the higher the number means there are more safety precautions. There has never been a community incident or a release with operating BSL-4 labs in North America," Berlin explained.
Berlin also noted that while she was still going over the alternative plan, she wanted to make sure people realized that BU was doing work already on the diseases Safety Net wanted them to focus on.
"Boston University Medical Campus and Boston Medical Center historically have had an expertise in community-based care and education and the focus and commitment continues today," Berlin wrote in a prepared email statement. She explained that in 2009, over $90 million was used to do research on asthma, cancer, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. (Breakdown: $7.5 million in asthma research, $30.7 million in cancer research, $12 million on HIV/AIDS work, $40.9 million on other infectious diseases.)
Berlin said that the research that BU wants to do in the lab is necessary, despite what opponents think.
"The NIH...identified a need for a facility like the NEIDL and that is why they are supporting it financially and that is why they authorized the funds to build it, so there is clearly a need for [it]," she said, adding, "They haven’t found cures for these diseases in the past four years. Research is ongoing and it takes many years to discover things."
Another event speaker, Marc Pelletier, MSc, who has worked in medical research for over 24 years, said otherwise at the meeting. He said that vaccines for both Marburg and Ebola had been tested in humans already, and at least one was "found to be effective as far as raising antibodies." Pelletier also said the Biolab was just one of the many places that received funding from the "pot of money" that was created after the 9/11 attacks.
"What we see is in the panic of these types of attacks, we make these very rash decisions that are probably not a good idea," he said.
Attendee Eloise Lawrence, who used to represent the Safety Net group as a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, said that this rash response led to the unsatisfactory and incomplete risk assessments.
"NIH approved this project. They put the cart before the horse. They should have done this risk assessment, required under the Nation Environmental Policy Act, to do an alternative analysis. The analysis was not done," she said, adding that the reason why the risk assessment, overseen by the Blue Ribbon Panel, was taking so long was they were trying to show that BU was the safest place for the lab.
"And they can’t do it," Lawrence said.
Nevertheless, Berlin said BU is hopeful as they await the report.
Assuming the assessment shows the lab is safe, Berlin said "we will review it and then the process of opening the lab will go forward."
But Klotz hopes that day never comes.
"When we say we don’t want this in our backyard, we’re not saying we don’t want this lab here so put it somewhere else," Klotz said at the event. "We’re not saying do this in another community. We’re saying do this in an entirely isolated location, out in middle of dessert somewhere or on an uninhabited island."
King, in closing at the event, called on the crowd to do their part to ensure the Biolab wouldn’t open.
"You have an opportunity to use your voice with Senator Brown and with Senator Kerry and your Congressperson to let them know," he said. "Everyone of us has the opportunity and I can tell you, when they begin to get it from places they didn’t think they would hear from, they’ll begin to take notice."