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Hurdles Remain For South End Infectious Disease Lab

 The Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) on Albany Street. (Lynn Jolicoeur for WBUR)

The Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) on Albany Street. (Lynn Jolicoeur for WBUR)

BOSTON — The names of deadly pathogens, such as Ebola, anthrax and plague, are enough to make some Boston residents shudder and say, “Not in my backyard.”

And at a National Institutes of Health meeting at Roxbury Community College Thursday night, the public will get to weigh in on the safety of research on such dangerous organisms proposed to take place at a controversial Boston University lab in the South End.

Local resident Klare Allen is with Safety Net, a neighborhood group that opposes the lab. She says after years of legal challenges and regulatory hurdles, backers of the BU biolab still haven’t answered certain questions about what would happen if one of these deadly pathogens was released into the community.

“How are we going to be safe? How are we going to eat?” Allen asked. “How will we be notified? Will there be an alarm? How is it going to be transported? What neighborhoods is it going through?”

This week, WBUR’s Bob Oakes toured the lab, officially called the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. Research on tuberculosis, which is considered a less dangerous, “level 2″ disease, began there earlier this month and security is already high.

After putting our belongings through a scanner and walking through metal detectors, we enter the seven-story, glass-and-concrete lab building. We’re met by one of the lab’s associate directors, Ara Tahmassian, a microbiologist who’s also in charge of research compliance at BU.

Ara Tahmassian: There is a biometric card reader, which is an iris scanner that I have to go through. So if you were to make an attempt to use your iris scanner, and you’re not authorized, this will trigger an alarm. So now, this is a typical biosafety level 2 lab. So people will be walking here, putting [on] a lab coat, put their gloves on.

Bob Oakes: So what’s in front of us right now are a half-dozen or more rows of long benches of lab work space, where people will eventually be working. It’s a huge room. It’s probably 75 feet long and 20 feet wide. Not a soul besides our entourage in here.

That’s absolutely correct. Actually, there is a parallel to this on the other side, which the biosafety level 2 people who are doing tuberculosis research have already moved in. So as you walk through the room, you will notice that there are what are known as the biosafety cabinets or biological safety cabinets. This is where most of the work will be done. So I would have, let’s say, spun this through the centrifuge, but I would be opening this inside of the cabinet, so if there was any airborne pathogens which was released, they would be captured through the filter system.

From there we enter a passageway, where so-called “level 3″ researchers will have to put on scrubs, a full-body Tyvek suit, and a filtration hood — which I try on for size.

For me at this moment, because the filtration system isn’t pumping any air in here, it’s a little hot and it’s a little humid, but it would be a lot more comfortable if I was actually working in the lab.

A biosafety level 3 lab, where researchers expect to eventually study pathogens including anthrax and plague. (Lynn Jolicoeur for WBUR)

A biosafety level 3 lab, where researchers expect to eventually study pathogens including anthrax and plague. (Lynn Jolicoeur for WBUR)

That’s correct. The only thing is that you will have to ultimately get used to is now you have air kind of shooting through your face, so there is some level of dehydration.

So I’ll be thirsty when I get out of there.

Pretty much, yes.

OK, time to get out. What happens if you have to go to the bathroom when you’re in that suit?

You actually try to hold as long as you can, and then you have to go through the sequence.

And come out of the room.

You have to come out of the room. You have to go through a decontamination process. You have to take all of the clothing out, you have to put your street clothing, and get out into the bathroom and then walk through the whole process.

Then we go into one of the level 3 labs — stocked up with lab equipment and supplies, but otherwise vacant.

So what would be studied in this level 3 lab?

Anthrax, plague, Japanese encephalitis virus, for example, is considered as a level 3. And these are the kind of agents that might be studied as we progress with recruitment of the new scientists.

Can I ask you, as a researcher, when you’re walking through this building, which seems to me to be pretty much ready to go, is it kind of frustrating that there aren’t more people working here?

It is very frustrating because we have a state-of-the-art facility, as you can see. We have the latest equipment and we think that this facility is probably one of the safest.

What would happen if there was research on anthrax, taking place in this room that we’re in, and somehow it leaked out? What happens?

Well, that’s part of what the risk assessment is addressing. That has taken a number of different scenarios and a number of agents. It sort of has concluded that in almost all of the instances, with the most conservative estimates that they have taken into consideration, the risk to the community is at best negligible. And that has been the practice, and that has been the experience from other facilities. There have been occasional incidents where investigators have gotten infected.

The researchers.

The researchers, who were studying with the agents. But there haven’t been, as to best of my knowledge, a secondary infection, which means that they took it out and it sort of got transmitted.

From there, we move to level 4 — the labs where researchers hope to eventually study the most deadly pathogens. Tahmassian shows us a massive room full of HEPA filtration machines specifically dedicated to cleaning the air in those labs. Then he takes us where researchers will don their so-called “space suits.”

Ara Tahmassian, NEIDL associate director and associate vice president for research compliance at Boston University, demonstrates how biosafety level 4 researchers will hook HEPA air hoses to their protective suits. (Lynn Jolicoeur for WBUR)

Ara Tahmassian, NEIDL associate director and associate vice president for research compliance at Boston University, demonstrates how biosafety level 4 researchers will hook HEPA air hoses to their protective suits. (Lynn Jolicoeur for WBUR)

So if you notice, we have these drop-down air supplies. The first thing that I will do is I will connect the air supply, and I will inflate the suit.

To check it for leaks?

To check it for leaks. Once it’s fully inflated, I will disconnect, run my fingers, hand over it, so that there are no leaks, at which point I will put the suit on.

We’re standing next to one of these stainless steel doors, outside of a chamber called a chemical shower.

The moment you close that door, automatically it activates a chemical shower. That’s a disinfectant.

The hallway itself is sealed. It feels like you’re walking through a water-tight compartment on a ship.

Yes, it is. And if you look at every one of the doors and every one of the rooms, they have a very similar design and they’re all airtight. Now we’re inside of a biosafety level 4 lab. One of the features you will notice as you look at every fixture in the room, it’s rounded and there are no sharp edges.

In this level 4 lab, what kind of agents would you work with?

So we have investigators who do research on Marburg, which is Ebola, a type of hemorrhagic fever. However, biosafety level 4 agents, by and large, are not easily transmissible. So person to person transmission is relatively difficult.

This room sort of feels like it’s a lady in waiting.

Anxiously waiting for some actual research to be conducted.

Once the National Institutes of Health finalizes its risk assessment report, state and federal agencies and judges have to approve it before biosafety level 3 and 4 research can take place at the Boston University facility. NIH is accepting written comments on the draft report until May 1.

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  • Lorinda_maria

    What happens if the electricity goes out?

    • Chris

      They  do address a couple power failure scenarios in the main report (the first document).  There are two diesel generators serving as backup to the main power source.  Based on previous data on power loss incidents and expert knowledge on the backup systems, they estimate that failure of the main power supply and both generators for a one-hour period in combination with release of some contaminated material in the air might happen once in more than one million years.   They have the methods they use to calculate these numbers to see if they make sense to you.  I searched for “power failure” and was able to find those estimates.

  • Anonymous

    “How are we going to be safe? How are we going to eat?” Allen asked. “How will we be notified? Will there be an alarm? How is it going to be transported? What neighborhoods is it going through?” 

    – Bob didn’t ask any of these questions.  I’m more concerned about emergency plans than bathroom inconveniences from wearing a biohazard suit. 

    Why were safety concerns dismissed in the lead as NIMBY? 

    • SomeGuy

      “the risk to the community is at best negligible.” 

      On the other hand it shows how stubborn and tyrannical BU is. They certainly could have built this in a less populated area. But their attitude in every neighborhood that they are in is the same. “Screw the neighbors.”

  • Anonymous

    “The hallway itself is sealed. It feels like you’re walking through a water-tight compartment on a ship.”  — Last week’s story was the 100th anniversary of the unsinkable Titianic.

  • Bjgq2

    Are the buildings small missle and car bomb proof?

    • Chris

      No.  But the microbes aren’t either.

  • http://twitter.com/architectjohn John Hubb

    The funny thing is, most level 4 pathogens are less dangerous because they are very hard to transmit, whereas level 2 pathogens like TB or the Flu are far more dangerous to the population because of ease of infection, but hey… science vs fear?

  • Smiclops

    Zombies…..That is all.

  • http://www.massnurses.org/ Mcrotty

    This lab was conceived in the early years of the Bush Administration during the search for weapons of mass destruction. Apparently when the WMD couldn’t be located in Iraq, a decision was made to import them – in the form of exotic, deadly agents causing diseases for which there are no known cures -to downtown Boston, so that they could be researched. So that the Defense department can come up with solutions for problems that don’t xist until they create them here. It’s been a crackpot scheme from the start. It’s way past time to turn this lab solely into a facility where true public health scourges (drug resistant TB, antibiotic-resistant infections, HIV, etc) are addressed. NOT where bioweapons are created that could wipe out the city. Mary Crotty RN JD on behalf of the Massachusetts Nurses Association

  • Lophius

    This is a story about a Boston University lab that was done by WBUR, the NPR radio station licensed to Boston University. Shouldn’t this connection have been mentioned in the story at some point? Not all listeners may be aware of this…

  • booo

    Gotta love it.  You got a brand new state of the art facility that can barely be used because a bunch of morons watched contagion and think they know whats up.  The type of people that went and took potassuium iodide after the japan reactor incident.  Not to mention that there are BL2 and BL3 labs (not sure about BL4)  all over Boston and Cambridge already, most of which are not nearly as safe and new as this facility.  Oh well, this country is already catering to idiots anyways.

  • A molecular biologist responds

    BU and NIH presented their 5th version of their risk assessment last night.  They forgot to study what happened in Ft. Detrick biodefense lab, where anthrax was smuggled out of a government lab and used for bioterrorism.  They forgot to study how 9000 vials of pathogens are missing from the Ft. Detrick.  They forgot to study how anthrax escaped from a Russian biodefense lab and killed ~70 people.  They forgot to study how reserchers carried SARS out of the lab three times and infected many people around them.  As a scientist, I have been appalled at the shoddy work that has gone into each of their risk assessments.  It has been window dressing to give BU and NIH cover to allow BU to start sucking on the teat of government funded ‘biodefense’ spending.

  • Molecular biologist

    If the BU ‘biolab’ opens its BSL-4, it will have the ability to generate a more contagious and pathogenic strain of Ebola, just as other NIH funded labs produced a more contagious for of ‘bird flu’.  The Ebola Reston and Zaire strains already have reports of possible airborne transmission to other test animals and even the human caretakers (in the case of Reston strain).  BUMC will be able to follow the bird flu example and stick infected and uninfected animals in close quarters and allow the virus to mutute to the point of being airborne.  Then our government scientists will purify the mutant virus, package its genes into little DNA packets (called plasmids) that are easily transportable and usable to recreate this new mutant and deadlier virus in any basic lab situation.  Its the democratization of bioterrorism capabilities.

  • Paul Horn

    Assuming it isn’t hamstrung by its institutional ties to B.U., I hope WBUR will give this story more serious, detailed coverage as the comment and approval process moves forward. The brief account of last night’s meeting on this morning’s broadcast hardly did justice to the outrage and the concerns expressed by many residents–some scientists and medical personnel among them.  The government officials there looked silly conducting what seemed a perfunctory, bureaucratic public meeting exercise.

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