BOSTON — Despite more than a decade of lawsuits, protests and meetings, Boston University is moving forward with its infectious disease lab while opponents continue to argue the research facility is unsafe for residents living in the the lower Roxbury and South End neighborhoods.
Opponents will be in federal court Thursday arguing for a permanent injunction against so-called Level 4 research, which deals with some of the deadliest pathogens.
A Long Fight Continues
“We are talking about bringing some of the most deadly agents into a very, very highly densely populated area in the inner city,” said Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents the district where the lab is located.
The seven-story National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, or NEIDL, sits just off the Southeast Expressway.
“We already have in Roxbury a highway, we have trash transfer, we actually have a jail that is next to the highway,” Jackson said. “We have shouldered a great deal of really difficult things in our community and this is one that we just can’t take.”
Earlier this year, reviews conducted by the state and by the National Institutes of Health determined the facility is safe for the surrounding communities. Klare Allen, a Roxbury resident and a plaintiff in lawsuits against the lab, contends those reviews were flawed.
“BU feels as though they have done enough as far as the risk assessment, as far as proving that the lab is safe,” Allen said. “We pretty much are saying, ‘No, you haven’t proved.’ They have created a 2,000-plus page document of a risk assessment but we have scientists from around the country who have reviewed that 2,000-page-document and still they haven’t been able to prove that Roxbury is safest place for the NEIDL.”
But John Murphy, NEIDL’s interim director and a professor of medicine and microbiology at the BU School of Medicine, says the document makes a clear case for safety.
“It is a remarkable document which very carefully goes through the potential risks of a number of agents both at biosafety Level 3 and biosafety Level 4,” Murphy said. “And the end of the report concludes that while there is some risk, that risk is exceedingly small.”
The report evaluated three potential lab sites: Boston, suburban Tyngsborough and a more rural location in Peterborough, N.H.
“[It] found that there wasn’t a greater risk here in the city of Boston than there was at either of suburban or rural sites,” Murphy said.
But Councilor Jackson says the threat impact just doesn’t compare.
“Peterborough, N.H., has a population of 3,103 people,” Jackson said. “We have buildings in Boston that actually have more than 3,000 people in them.”
The opposition is focused on safety concerns related to Level 4 research, which deals with some of the deadliest, most infectious pathogens such as Ebola, plague and anthrax.
Meanwhile, Level 2 research is already under way in the lab, and BU has applied to move its Level 3 research from a lab across the street to the NEIDL. The Boston Public Health Commission must first give it the OK.
“I think we are the only one in the country with municipal oversight of labs,” said Leon Bethune, director of BPHC’s environmental health office. “We need to make sure that those labs are safe and that’s why we have the regulation behind us. The best we can do is to make sure that, you know, the bugs stay in the building and not get out by continuing our inspection and continuing our oversight. We do have the teeth to make sure that happens.”
While BU insists there’s no threat of pathogens leaving the building, activist Allen says no one has addressed concerns about malevolent intent or other possible scenarios. She does acknowledge that BU has addressed some fears, but says it’s not enough.
“They have done some things, things that we’ve advocated for since 2002, but they haven’t proven our safety and they haven’t proven that the city of Boston is prepared,” Allen said.
In addition to the federal lawsuit being heard Thursday, there is still another lawsuit in state court blocking the Level 4 research.