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BU flunks the trust test

They didn't think we would want to know?

Of course they knew better, and that is exactly why Boston University and the city, state, and federal officials who want to build a $128 million ''biodefense lab" that would bring the most deadly known pathogens and viruses to the South End kept their mouths shut about a breach in another BU lab that infected three researchers, putting two of them in the hospital, and spawning a series of investigations. This was no secret, said Ellen Berlin, a spokeswoman for Boston University Medical Center, who was left yesterday to defend the indefensible. People were told.

It may not have been a secret if you were on the inside of one of the public health investigations -- or inside the Menino administration, where the mayor knew early on -- but the problem at the BU lab will come as a surprise to almost everyone else. It was not until the press started calling did BU start talking publicly about the tularemia infection, which is most commonly associated with insect bites but is also seen as a potential weapon for terrorists -- just what interested the BU researchers.

Frame the situation in the best possible light for BU. Assume, as BU says, there was no public health threat in the infection of three laboratory workers. Assume, as BU says, that the lab the university wants to build to develop vaccines against scary terrorist threats such as anthrax and Ebola is a different animal than the one where the lab workers were infected. Assume, as BU says, it alerted public health agencies as it should have.

Give BU and its powerful city-state backers all that, and they still failed in the most basic of ways. They failed the trust test.

For two years BU has been saying it wants to be candid and transparent about its plans for a biodefense lab. It likes to say it has convened more than 100 meetings about the project. It launched an ad campaign on the Orange and Silver lines to sell the lab to the community. ''Reason #14," the ad said. ''The biosafety lab will find cures for infectious diseases. For more reasons why the biosafety lab is good for our community, visit www.bostonbiosafety.com."

But BU wasn't about to advertise the infections at its lab. That didn't fit with the sales pitch. The first two researchers fell ill in May and then another in late September. By Oct. 29, BU stopped work on the tularemia project and started alerting health agencies. (This was no ordinary accident; BU's acting provost, Dr. Thomas Moore, says he cannot recall a similar incident in the university's labs.) But BU never disclosed the problem at any of the public meetings that followed. The comment period for the federal environmental review for the project ended Jan. 3, by chance or not.

''Last year's mishap is doubly worrisome," says Philip Warburg, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, which has pushed for consideration of alternative sites for the lab. ''First, it casts serious doubt on BU's assertion that it can handle infectious diseases in a manner that guarantees the health of the Boston community. Second, BU's failure to let the public know about the incident calls into question its willingness to be candid about the way it runs these sorts of facilities."

BU may -- or may not -- have followed the letter of the regulations, but this is about more than following regulations. It is about trust. BU is asking us to trust that it will keep us safe from some of the deadliest biological agents known to mankind. Repeat: some of the deadliest biological agents known to mankind.

Trust is a fragile thing -- hard to build, harder still to rebuild. Considering the stakes, the bar needs to be very high. For BU, it just got considerably higher.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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