Neighborhood Biolabs: How Safe Are They?

PHOTO: The Stop the Biolab Coalition conducts a peaceful protest near the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Mass., May 7, 2007.
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Located just around the corner from the muted gray-brown of medical buildings, brownstones and halfway houses, Boston's most controversial laboratory stands out in clean beige with a shiny silver panel sticking out of its side like a shark fin.

Neighbors deemed the building predatory even before the fin was built, when Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories was just a proposal in 2002. After years of lawsuits, protests and meetings, the BU BioLab is now one step closer to being allowed to study anthrax, Ebola and the plague – diseases some Bostonians fear will escape and wreak havoc on their community.

The federal government has determined that a lab is safe for the surrounding environment, but neighbors aren't so sure. And as these labs become more prevalent, the government has been working on establishing standards – and responsibility – for them.

Quelling the Fear of Contagion

The BU BioLab seeks to conduct biosafetoy levels BSL-3 and BSL-4 research, which are classifications that mean the labs require the most stringent safety measures because they are where researchers study dangerous infectious diseases for which there are no vaccines or cures.

National Institutes of Health conducted a second environmental impact investigation as a result of a federal lawsuit from the community surrounding the lab, culminating in a more than 700-page report that examines every possible way an infectious disease can escape – from earthquakes to clumsy lab techs who prick their fingers to bring the disease out into the open.

"They don't look at issues like rogue scientists," said Klare Allen, the founder of the Roxbury Safety Net, a community group that has opposed the BioLab since 2002. Allen has opposed the lab since she sat in on a public meeting and panicked at the word "anthrax."

She said she and her colleagues reviewed the report, but called it "not valid." "The lab can be as secure as Fort Knox, but who is going to secure an individual who is tired of the system and wants to do something?"

NIH did examine the possibility of someone intentionally taking one of the diseases and letting it out into the open, NIH's director of the Office of Biodefense Research Affairs, Michael Kurilla, told ABCNews.com.

It's just in a top secret document that only one individual in the entire NIH is allowed to see, Kurilla said.

"The reason it's not made public is because it would be like the threat risk assessment for a bank would be how somebody could break into the vault. You don't want to tell people the best way to do it," Kurilla said. "Insider threat is something that has obviously been on people's minds, and a number of mechanisms have been put into place."

The lab started BSL-2 research last spring after about four years of vacancy, but it will still need to undergo a few more state and local hurdles before it can begin BSL-3 and BSL-4 work, in part because of several pending lawsuits against it. Safety Net, for instance, has argued that then-Gov. Mitt Romney didn't have the right to put the lab in Boston's South End.

"The whole question of where to locate a BSL-4 is very, very charged," said Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health on the Council on Foreign Relations, calling similar conflicts over BSL-4 labs at the University of Texas Medical Branch and Kansas State University "showdowns."

Garrett said Boston, one of the premiere research centers in the world, has had an especially tumultuous relationship with laboratories. Back in the 1970s, for instance, communities in Boston and Cambridge opposed basic genetic engineering research, she added.

BSL-4 Labs Increase Nationwide After 9/11

There were only a few BSL-4 labs in the United States prior to Sept. 11, 2001, but after an anthrax scare, government leaders wanted vaccines, Garrett said. There are now several new BSL-4 labs because of a surge in government spending, but officials have faced problems establishing standards for the high-risk labs – including how to count them.

"When we went to the NIH, they couldn't even give us a number," Allen said, adding that the fact has only added to her worry about the BU BioLab.

The Government Accountability Office has been trying to nail down everything from which offices should oversee the labs to which researchers have clearance to work in them, according to published reports.

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