Biolab hosts press tour

by Kate Vander Wiede
Managing Editor
Thursday Jan 12, 2012

Successfully completing an iris scan and swiping through two keycard readers got Ron Corley through security and up the elevator of the Biolab. Another iris scan awaited before he was granted access to the administrative offices was granted. To get into the biosafety level 2 (BSL-2) lab, he would have to swipe his keycard once again.

And these were just the security measures required to enter the lowest-level labs in the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL, or Biolab), owned and operated by Boston University (BU).

Safety and security were the main topics of conversation at the NEIDL (620 Albany Street) Tuesday morning, Jan. 10, as Corley, the NEIDL's associate director, and John Murphy, the NEIDL's ad-interim director, led reporters and city and state officials on a tour through the soon-to-be operational building.

"A lot of concerns are raised by people who don't have the knowledge of what's going on here," said Mayor Tom Menino, whose office helped arrange the tour. "They just hear 'infectious diseases,' and think 'Oh, my god.'

"I think [BU is] taking every precaution possible to make this the safest facility in the country."

With only two iris scans and three keycard or proximity card access points, security to enter the Level 2 laboratories paled in comparison to entry to Level 3 and 4 labs. Level 2 laboratories -- of which there are thousands in Massachusetts - work with agents that are associated with human disease and can be spread through cuts, ingestion and mucus membranes.

But in Level 3 and 4 labs, the safety precautions increase. Level 3 chemical agents can cause serious or potentially lethal disease through inhalation, whereas Level 4 agents pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections that are frequently fatal, or for which there are no vaccines or treatments. Research on Level 2,3 and 4 agents will be done in order to develop diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines to combat to diseases.

It is the risk associated with the research on Level 3 and Level 4 agents that has led to panic and concern among the South End and Lower Roxbury community when plans for the building first surfaced in 2002. In 2003, two lawsuits against Trustees of Boston University, Boston Medical Center Corporation, and NIH led to state and federal cases and the finding that an initial risk assessment of the building was inadequate and "not based on good science." The NIH responded by creating their Blue Ribbon Panel in 2008, a panel of experts charged with overseeing the risk assessment process.

That three-plus year process has been a much longer one than BU and NEIDL officials thought it would be. However, a draft final risk assessment is due to come out sometime in February and the Blue Ribbon Panel has planned a public meeting for February 16. Furthermore, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs recently decided to allow the NEIDL to resume Level 2 laboratory work, though the office turned down the facility's request to do Level 3 work, citing the need for the risk assessment to be complete.

As momentum has built for the NEIDL, many changes have taken place, most significantly John Murphy's installation as the interim director of the NEIDL after former director Mark Klempner left the position to return to research.

At a December meeting, Murphy outlined changes he and BU staff are making to the NEIDL's organizational structure.

"We're going through all the systems in the NEIDL and taking a fresh look," Murphy said. "One of the things we're looking at is what is the organizational structure of the NEIDL and does it make sense with respect t where we are today and what we're going to try to accomplish?"

A new board of associate directors, comprised of former members of Murphy's executive committee will now meet weekly to discuss and vote on issues and within the NEIDL.

"When it comes to a point where we need to take a vote, we actually do take a vote, majority rules," Murphy said. "It's not longer a circumstance where one individual, in effect, is making decisions about the science and operations."

Furthermore, a safety committee that will meet on a daily basis has formed for the NEIDL as well. The group will meet to take the "pulse and health status" of the entire building. Each person on the committee will have veto power.

"Each of those members will have veto responsibility to say this area of the building for this reason ... is not ready to do a particular series of experiments," Murphy said.

Despite the risk assessment process and the plethora of safety and security features within the building, however, concerns still exist among the public, and even within the CLC. The CLC is a six-member community group established by the NEIDL in June 2006; members are chosen through an open, self-nomination process.

Dolly Battle, a resident of Roxbury and CLC member since it began, said that she was "skeptical" of the NIH. "No matter what they say, I don't think I'm going to have much trust in what they do," Battle said, noting that there has been a lack of conversation between BU and the community over what kind of research is going to happen in the building.

Associate director Corley recognized Battle's concerns during the Tuesday tour, confirming that he was concerned others in the community wont believe or understand what the risk assessment says when it comes out, despite the long process.

"I think part of it is constant education and conversation," Corley said, adding that the "lay summary" the NIH is preparing to go with the 1,700-page risk assessment should help in explaining the report to the community. "I think it will be helpful, but it is only the beginning. I think we keep the conversation going even once the lab is, hopefully, fully open."

Executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, Barbara Ferrer, said during the tour that even though the initial risk assessment was not credible, the new one should be trusted.

"This is new, this is an emerging science," she said. "We have to respect that and we have to respect that with any kind of emerging science, people are going to spend a fair amount of time trying to understand and quantify the risk.

"There is no compromise here on the safety of the community to open this facility," Ferrer added. "It's not like jobs versus safety."

Ferrer added that most of the risk from the Level 4 research was risk that the workers take on themselves. Corley outlined during the tour the difficult training process Level 4 workers must go through to get permission for Level 4 research. Each person must complete at least six months of level 2 research while being under review. Only the best move up to Level 4, where the training process starts by practicing a minimum of five entries ad exits of the facility in a mock Level 4 lab.

"They learn to pressure test the suits, to untangle lines, put on boots, and make sure they don't panic," Corley said, adding that the positive-pressure suits Level 4 workers wear make sitting difficult, make dexterity a challenge, and can be difficult for those who are claustrophobic to wear. "You have to put people through tests to make sure they can handle it." After six months or more of being mentored in the Level 4 laboratory, successful candidates can be allowed to work on real experiments with their own lab partners.

If Level 3 or 4 research is approved in the facility after the risk assessment is published, it will still be at least six months before level 4 research starts, as researchers will be testing the facilities at Levels 2 and 3 before upgrading to more dangerous experiments.

In over the next several months, BU will start to acquire the city, state and federal permits required to perform Level 2 research. Once the risk assessment is complete, the state's Secretary of Environmental and Energy Affairs will decide whether the risk assessment is satisfactory. If approval is given by the secretary, research on BSL-3 and BSL-4 agents can begin once all the city, state and federal permits are acquired by BU. Research will the start on the building unless the state court finds the secretary's ruling to be faulty, or unless a federal court finds fault with the risk assessment.

Mayor Menino, a longtime advocate of the Biolab, is waiting for the day to arrive when all levels of research are allowed at the lab.

"They've done a good job here," he said, "and now it's time for us to go and do the research and put people to work and find the cures for some of these diseases."

Tiers of Safety

Level 2

1. Iris scan to enter security
2. Keycard to access main building
3. Keycard to access elevator
4. Iris scan to exit elevator lobby onto main floor
5. Proximity card reader to access benches
6. Door to access tissue culture lab

Protective gear
1. Lab coat
2. Gloves
3. Eye and face protection

Protective equipment
1. Infectious agents worked on under a hood

Level 3

1. Iris scan to enter security
2. Keycard to access main building
3. Keycard to access elevator
4. Iris scan to exit elevator lobby onto main floor
5. Keycard to access anteroom TK
6. Door into main laboratory

Protective gear
1. Tyvek suit
2. Gloves
3. Eye and face protection
4. Respiratory protection (PAPR, powered air purifying respirator)

Protective equipment
1. An airflow detector ensures flow of air is into the lab, so no vapors from infectious agents can escape.
2. Only one door can open at a time to ensure the flow of air stays in the correct direction.
3. Liquids are decontaminated on site and poured down drain.
4. Solid items are sterilized in an autoclave in anteroom before being removed from lab.
5. Infectious agents work on under a hood
6. Cameras observe work done in labs
7. Vents and walls are sealed
8. Walls are smooth to make decontamination easy

Level 4

1. Iris scan to enter security
2. Keycard to access main building
3. Keycard to access elevator
4. Iris scan to exit elevator lobby onto main floor
5. Enter door into changing room
6. Enter door into "suit room"
7. Dual iris scan (two must scan their eyes at the same time) to enter hallway
8. Enter door into individual lab

Protective gear required
1. A full-body, one-piece, positive pressure, supplied-air suit
2. Garden boot to protect the suit

Protective equipment
1. Lab floor acts as separate "building within a building" and moves independently from the main building
2. Lab "building" has 16-inches of reinforced concrete in the flooring, 12-inches of reinforced concrete in the walls, and 14-inches of reinforced concrete in the ceiling.
3. Alarm system and computer monitors in each lab allow for control room to inform workers in case of an emergency, and allow workers to monitor what is happening in other labs on the same floor
4. Airflow detectors ensure flow of air is into the lab, so no vapors from infectious agents can escape. Computer monitors show airflow into every room on the floor.
5. Only one door can open at a time to ensure the flow of air stays in the correct direction.
6. Workers must take seven-minute chemical shower after exiting laboratory
7. Workers must take a regular shower after taking off positive pressure suit
8. Liquids are decontaminated on site and poured down drain.
9. Solid items are sterilized in an autoclave before being removed from lab.
10. Infectious agents work on under a hood
11. Use of airtight centrifuges
12. Air entering room runs through one air filter
13. Air leaving room runs through two air filters
14. Cameras in every level 4 room except the changing room
15. Vents and walls are sealed
16. Walls are smooth to make decontamination easy

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