Debate Continues On BU Biolab Research Into Deadly Diseases

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 — Hundreds turned out at Boston City Hall Wednesday night to weigh in on a proposal to prohibit certain biosafety research in the city into deadly diseases.

The primary target of the ban would be Boston University’s controversial and new bio-containment lab in the South End.

A Stance Against Science?

It was standing room only in council chambers as At-Large Councilor Michael Flaherty gaveled the meeting of the government operations committee to order.

Boston City Councillor Charles Yancey said his opposition to Level 4 research in Boston is not a stance against science. (Cydney Scott/BU Today)

Boston City Councillor Charles Yancey said his opposition to Level 4 research in Boston is not a stance against science. (Cydney Scott/BU Today)

Several hundred people, from both sides, came for the hearing on an ordinance proposed by City Councilor Charles Yancey to prohibit biosafety Level 4 research in Boston. Level 4 is the designation for work on the most dangerous pathogens for which there is no cure.

Yancey said he’s not taking a stance against science.

“The city of Cambridge has banned Level 4 research,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is going to accuse the city of Cambridge of being anti-research or anti-science.”

Boston University is already doing Level 2 and Level 3 research in its National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories — or NEIDL at the BU medical campus in the South End. Gloria Waters, the university’s vice president and associate provost, said the facility will also serve as a training ground for the next generation of doctors, and she added it provides an economic boost for the city.

“Beyond making important scientific contributions the NEIDL will also strengthen the local economy,” she said. “The facility is expected to bring in approximately $45 million a year in new federal funding which will actually translate into an additional $100 million in related economic activity.”

Councilor Frank Baker, noting the 12-year battle for the research, said residents remain worried for their safety.

“There’s still distrust,” he said. “Who are we supposed to believe here?”

Baker said he’s still trying to decide his position on the ordinance.

Klare Allen, the activist who’s been at the forefront of community opposition, said she wants to hear from Mayor Marty Walsh on the issue.

“I don’t know where the mayor is,” she said. “I know that he was opposed to it when he was running for mayor. I don’t see him now, and I don’t see him speaking up now, and that’s a problem.”

The mayor’s office says he has not changed his opposition to Level 4 research he stated in his campaign, but that he will assess the council’s specific ordinance on the basis of Wednesday’s hearing.

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  • jofish15

    With over 100 combined years of operation in the US, there has never
    been a release of an agent from a BSL4 lab. There is a clear record of
    safe research which is in large part due to regulations and inspections
    from the CDC, the NIH. Research at the NEIDL would comply with these
    regulations plus those from the Boston Public Health Commission as well
    as internal (BU) regulations. The research that would be conducted at
    the NEIDL would not only benefit those individuals in countries where
    these emerging and re-emerging diseases are endemic but would also
    protect us here from cases due to foreign travel (which HAS happened in
    the past and likely will happen again).

    If you would like to show your support of the important research that
    the NEIDL would be conducting, please consider signing the petition below to
    oppose the possible ban of BSL4 research in Boston.


    • Willie Nelson

      not to mention the pathogens would not be airborne.

  • FrankO

    Why we are doing potential terrorists a favor by building a tempting target like this in a heavily populated area is a mystery to me.

    • BostonScientist

      It’s not a mystery at all, this concern is addressed in the extensive
      risk assessment, and is negligible. The final risk assessment and
      supplement have been signed off on by both a panel of independent
      experts in numerous fields, officials at the city, state and federal
      level, and a federal judge. All of this information is free and publicly
      available, there’s no excuse not to read it if you want to speak either
      for or against the facility.

    • JudithO

      FrankO is 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.

  • FrankO

    I don’t have to read a report to know that if the unthinkable did happen, no matter how ‘neglible’ the risk, less people would die if it happened in a rural area than if it happened in a densly populated urban area. Yes it might be nice to save the people who work there from having to drive an hour to get to the lab but lots of regular folks have to drive for an hour or more to get to work each day, generally wasting time and fuel admittedly, but in this case, given the nature of the work, I think a ‘long commute’ is more than justified in the interests of society and human life. Just by the simple action of locating something like this ‘in the sticks’ you have reduced the terrorist attack temptation factor to almost zero, but if they still wanted to attack it you have also reduced the potential horrible death toll as well. So I don’t think I need to read any report to logically ask, why wouldn’t you build something like this in a more sensible place? We have, in the past, built dangerous stuff close to urban areas in an era when we weren’t thinking of terrorist threats (like LNG facilities), but I would hope that we are smarter than that now, when it comes to building new facilities (though it seems in this case we are not). I’m all for a convenient commute, but the argument that deadly bugs have not yet escaped from one of these places (so we can all just assume they probably never will) is not all that reassuring, given the risks involved and the simple solution to reducing that risk by employing the logical mind to admit that putting a building full of super-deadly bugs in the middle of a heavily populated city is a dumb idea.

    • JudithO

      How exactly would the terrorist attach work? These viruses are still transmitted via blood and NOT airborne …. so they actually make a pretty bad target for terrorist.

  • Softie

    The paradox of equality recognizes that, since each of us is different, the only way to equalize us would be to treat each of us unequally.

  • X-Ray

    Typical NIMB response. Without some risk, mankind will make no progress.

  • FrankO

    I understand the NIMB attack, but it truly is NIMB so that response doesn’t apply. I’m just being logical.

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