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Boston Biolab Clears State Hurdle For Max-Security Work

The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, on the BU Medical Campus. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky, courtesy of BU)
The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, on the BU Medical Campus. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky, courtesy of BU)

It's widely referred to as the "needle" — as in NEIDL, the acronym for the National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory. It's a futuristic, seven-story tower near Boston Medical Center in the South End, built to house high-level infectious-disease labs. And its fate has been mired in controversy for years, the kind of struggle you'd expect around a plan to research some of the world's deadliest pathogens right near a densely populated neighborhood.

BU Today explains: "Construction on the $200 million facility was completed in September 2008, but controversy and litigation have kept much of the building’s 192,000 square feet of laboratory space closed."

Now, BU Today reports that the NEIDL has just gained a key approval:

The Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs has given approval for the lab to conduct research at Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) and Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4). The state agency issued a Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) certificate on Friday, clearing the way for the issuance of final state permits for the project."

Some background:

As the Globe's Stepehen Smith wrote in 2010: "South End and Roxbury residents have taken to the streets and the courts to protest the project. While state and federal judges allowed construction on the $200 million project to continue to completion — it includes both a high-security Biosafety Level-4 lab, as well as other research facilities — they mandated further safety reviews before it could open for research."

WBUR's Delores Handy took a press tour of the building last year, and officials told her that the NEIDL was probably the safest building in the city, and that the fence around it could stop truck bombs.

NECN's Peter Howe described "foot-thick reinforced concrete walls, triple microscopic air filtration systems, intensely guarded entrances and exits, doors controlled by iris scanners to allow only authorized scientists and security personnel in to specific floors, and hundreds of surveillance cameras to prevent anyone from trying to sneak deadly biological samples out of the building to create terrorist weapons."

Critics point out that the building is just off the Southeast Expressway in the densely populated South End. This, they say, is an issue of environmental justice.

But Boston Mayor Thomas Menino told reporters on the tour: "This is about the future. It's about making sure that we have the tools in our city to do the research and the findings that we need to cure some of these diseases out there."

WBUR Today reports on the lab's latest state approval:

...John Murphy, interim director of NEIDL and a School of Medicine professor of medicine and microbiology, says he is pleased that the MEPA process has had a positive finding. “Our research will make important contributions toward improving public health and will have local, national, and global impact,” he says.

Boston University will now request permission from the Boston Public Health Commission to transfer ongoing BSL-3 research from an existing BSL-3 lab on the Medical Campus to the NEIDL. This research involves tuberculosis-related bacteria and finding new ways to treat the disease, including improved vaccines.
BSL-4 research will not begin until some additional regulatory and judicial determinations are made.

Readers? My bet, after hearing Delores talk about the fierce opposition: This fight is not over.

This program aired on March 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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