Neighborhood Biolabs: How Safe Are They?

Infectious disease labs increase in number, but neighbors worry about safety.

January 4, 2013, 4:15 PM

Jan. 7, 2013— -- 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

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.

When asked how many BSL-4 labs exist in the United States, Kurilla confirmed there was no standard way to count them. Some buildings have two rooms with BSL-4 classification, but is it one lab or two? Kurilla said the NIH has not decided.

"There's a 'glove box', for example, at Georgia State University that specifically contains a herpes virus B – a monkey virus that's fatal to humans – and that's the only work they do -- but they call that a BSL-4 lab," Kurilla said, wondering whether a BSL-4 lab should be defined as a facility or a room or a box in a room.

The GAO counted 15 BSL-4 labs in October 2007. Although two such labs existed before 1990, three were constructed between 1990 and 2000, and 10 were constructed from 2001 to 2007.

"A major proliferation of high-containment BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs is taking place in the United States, according to the literature, federal agency officials, and experts," the GAO report says. "Though several agencies have a need to know, no one agency knows the number and location of these labs in the United States. Consequently, no agency is responsible for determining the risks associated with the proliferation of these labs."

In its most recent look at BSL-4 labs, which was published in 2010, the GAO determined that there were no standard perimeter security protocols from lab to lab.

Still, Garrett described being inside the CDC's Atlanta BSL-4 lab -- which recently had "serious" airflow problems that could have exposed passersby to airborne pathogens -- as being so secure that it's like being "inside of a bubble inside of a bubble inside of a bubble." She was able to enter the lab because it was undergoing a complete cleaning, and said she doesn't expect to be allowed inside again because of strict security.

But Are The Labs Safe?

Almost 400 incidents involving the potential release of infectious "agents" occurred between 2003 and 2009, according to a 2011 National Research Council report. More than half were simply called "loss of containment" incidents, but there were also several incidents involving needle pricks, animal bites or scratches and equipment failure.

But Dr. Donald Henderson, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, says labs are becoming stricter about safety. Henderson was part of a panel of experts that evaluated the safety of a BSL-4 lab in Fort Detrick, Md.

Henderson examined the lab, called the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, for every possible scenario -- even sewage system failures.

"It's elaborate, I must say," Henderson said of the lab's security protocols, of which there are many overlapping mechanisms. "There are all sorts of provisions with regard to security in terms of guarding any facility so that they're there to assure no one can break into the laboratory, and to have, 24-hours-a-day, some sort of security guard activity protecting it."

The lab also had experts on call to treat any employee who could potentially become ill from one of the diseases, Henderson said. But no lab technician has actually come down with a disease he or she was working on since the 1980s, when a researcher got smallpox, he said.

"That was just before major changes were made across labs with regard to smallpox in particular and, to a great extent, to many other agents that would be particularly dangerous agents," he said. "I think it became more stringent and more stringent … The whole field of what is best to do is evolving."

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