Boston City Council Seeks To Ban Level 4 Research At BU Biolab

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 in Boston’s South End. (Lynn Jolicoeur for WBUR)

BOSTON — Boston city councilors are preparing to debate the safety of Boston University’s biolab, where the university hopes to soon begin long-delayed research on some highly infectious diseases.

For years, BU has planned to do biosafety Level 4 research on diseases like Ebola at its seven story, fortress-like structure in Boston’s South End known as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, or NEIDL. Now the Boston City Council is jumping into the longstanding debate over the lab.

“I’m actually not saying that this science and what is happening here is invalid. It is absolutely, absolutely valid,” Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson said a community meeting Tuesday night in advance of a City Council hearing on a proposed ordinance to block Level 4 research at the lab.

Jackson is one of the sponsors of that ordinance that would prevent Level 4 research at the lab, which is adjacent to his district. He questions the lab’s location in such a densely populated neighborhood that already carries a lot of environmental burdens.

The meeting grew tense, with a profane remark thrown at Jackson by Robert Timmerman, a member of the lab’s community liaison committee, which meets monthly to keep residents informed. Timmerman quickly apologized for what he called his “flip remark.”

BU cleared a major hurdle last fall when a federal judge gave the go-ahead for the lab to do Level 3 and Level 4 research. The university is in the process of transferring Level 3 research on tuberculosis from one of its labs on its medical campus to the NEIDL. But a lawsuit from opponents is still pending in state court.

“Level 4, we are awaiting state court decision and final review by Boston Public Health Commission,” said Steve Burgay, senior vice president for external affairs at Boston University. “Once those reviews are done we would have the ability to move ahead to seek grants to do Level 4 research down the road.”

Mayor Marty Walsh went on record during his campaign last year, saying that as mayor he would oppose Level 4 labs. His office confirms that’s still his position.

The City Council Government Operations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing April 16 on the ordinance to prohibit the high-level research.

Correction: An earlier version of this report inaccurately said the lab is in Councilor Jackson’s district. It has recently been redistricted out of his district and is now adjacent to it. We regret the error.

Earlier Coverage:

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  • JBK007

    How about having BU, and it’s Center for International Health, look to set up field-based research labs for these deadly diseases, which are best left off our shores….or else, require that these level 4 facilities be located at least 100 miles from any residential area!

    • Susan Parker

      Yeah, that’ll be great for scientific collaboration.

      • JBK007

        Assuming this is a sarcastic reply, I’ll just say that I’m sure researchers from other institutions would be welcome to participate. The point is, bringing the diseases here is risky…and, field-based research is where you get to the source…

        • Susan Parker

          You cannot carry out the research needed to develop vaccines and therapeutics “in the field.” You need a facility like the BSL4 lab. That lab needs to be in a geographic area where many scientists are clustered. Skype doesn’t cut it. And why is it OK for us to do this research “off our shores” – sounds like you are proposing doing the same thing that Boston is accusing BU of doing – locating this in a poor area “off the shores” of the wealthy suburbs.

          • JudithO

            I want to stress the point that JBK007 is also ingnoring the FACT that there are multiple existing BSL4 laboratories doing research in major cities and there has NEVER been any release into the community. In addition all the viruses to be studied in the NEIDL under BSL4 conditions are transmitted via blood and so there is NO easy spread.

  • BostonScientist

    Boston is a leader is in biomedical research. To ban research now would be detrimental not only to the scientists themselves, but to the future prospects of scientific investors and grants in the city of Boston. If we can’t trust Boston to support scientifically sound (and judicially approved!) evidence, why will future investors come here? I have continually been disgusted by the lack of solid reporting on the evidence in this dispute, and am discouraged by the anti-intellectualism of our city council members. You represent the people not so you can blindly follow popular opinions, but so that you can educate yourselves and make informed decisions. Having spoken to my own city councilors, it is apparent that they are unaware of even the basics of the NIH Blue Ribbon panel and unprecedented security reviews.

  • Michael Shearer

    Make your voice heard! Sign my petition in support of letting the BSL-4 lab open.


    • Judith Olejnik

      The ongoing Ebola Virus outbreak in Western Africa highlights the importance of research of Emerging Infectious Disease as there is still not much knowledge about these diseases.


      Research in the NEIDL will improve global health and also benefit the research community in Boston. The lab has already went through the
      supplemental risk assessment process, having it blessed by two independent
      scientific groups (the NRC and the Blue Ribbon Panel) and having prevailed in Federal Court that is is safe to operate in Boston.

  • Guest

    The ongoing Ebola Virus outbreak in Western Africa shows how important research on Emerging Infectious Diseases is. Boston will greatly benefit from work that can be done at the NEIDL. http://rt.com/news/ebola-who-challenging-disease-369/

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