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BU Bioterrorism Lab Earns MIT Profs’ Ire

By Jenny Zhang


Boston University’s plans to build a Biosafety Level 4 bioterror research laboratory in South End near the BU Medical center have generated strong opinions from area pundits, including MIT professors.

The Associated Press reported on April 13 that almost 150 scientists and scholars wrote a letter to Mayor Thomas Menino and the Boston City Council expressing concerns about locating such a laboratory in a densely populated area. However, the AP also reported that on this Tuesday about 330 scientists signed a statement in support of the lab.

According to the National Institutes of Health Web site, “work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of aerosol-transmitted laboratory infections and life-threatening disease,” can take place in Biosafety Level 4 labs.

BU was awarded a $120 million grant by NIH last fall to build the laboratory, according to The Daily Free Press, BU’s independent student newspaper.

Letter opposes construction

Signers of the letter expressing opposition to the bioterror lab included faculty from MIT, Harvard, Boston University, and Boston College in addition to other schools, the AP reported.

The letter said, “We ... oppose the construction of a Level 4 Biological Research Center. Research ... will involve work with some of the most dangerous biological organisms, viruses, and toxins ... such as anthrax, Ebola, and smallpox.”

The letter warned, “there can be no guarantees that there will be no accidents that might lead to the release of deadly, air-borne pathogens through the failure of safety systems.”

“This facility will have a negative impact on the quality of life in the surrounding residential neighborhood and should not be located in this densely populated area: there are 50,000 people within one mile,” the letter continued.

It closed with the request that “Boston University withdraw its plans to build this laboratory.”

Area professors raise concerns

Many professors from MIT, Harvard, and other area colleges said that they were worried about the consequences of constructing the bioterror lab.

Professor of Biology Jonathan A. King, a signatory of the letter, said “This proposal to build a bioterrorism lab in a very densely populated low-income area, the center of the city, is deeply unsound.”

King also said he was concerned because the lab would be built in a low-income area where many people did not have health insurance.

“Part of the mechanism for security and safety” is that they “monitor the health of people in the surrounding areas,” and therefore it would be better to “have the lab in an area of low population density,” he said.

David M. Ozonoff, BU Director of the Program in Public Health Preparedness, and Professor of Environmental Health, also signed the letter. He said that he had originally supported the lab, but then changed his mind because he feels that the laboratory “severely distorts the priorities” of public health.”

“The new lab will not do public health research, he said. “It’s meant to deal with bioterrorism.”

“It’s going to [be] a biosafety level 4 facility so that it can handle the most dangerous organism biolevel 4 is “the kind of thing you see in movies, [with] airlocks and decontamination showers ... the most stringent security ... despite that, accidents still occur,” he said.

Boston authorities assert safety

Proponents of the construction of the lab assert that it will have the highest security levels possible and therefore will be very safe.

Sonal Gandhi, Senior Project Manager for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said, “we feel that the lab will be built to the highest safety” standards, and that the laboratory would employ strict usage of ID cards and “the highest security standard.”

She explained that the proposed location of the laboratory was in a densely populated area because it needed to be “in proximity to the scientific community.”

Gandhi said that the scientists who would work in the laboratory “are very highly trained” and “have been in the field for many years,” and that the design of the laboratory would prevent the escape of dangerous pathogens. She cited a level 4 lab in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia located next to a daycare center as proof of the safety of the lab.

Gandhi believes that much of the opposition to the lab from scientists and residents of the proposed area arises from lack of knowledge about what is actually going on. “We need to do a better job on educating the population on the lab,” she said.

“BU has reached out to [inform] the community,” she said.

“I feel that this building will be very safe,” Gandhi asserted.

Gerald R. Fink, Professor of Biology and member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, said that he felt that it was important that the local community welcomed the laboratory.

In principal, he said, “I don’t believe there’s a serious risk to the local population ... in abstract, there’s no reason why it should not be built.”

BU spokeswoman Ellen Berlin had said in an AP article that the plans for the lab still needed to undergo federal and state environmental reviews for approval, and that construction is scheduled to begin next year.

Jennifer Krishnan contributed to the reporting of this story.