TO PERSUADE Boston and its congested South End-Roxbury neighborhood to accept a proposed Boston University bio-defense laboratory working with highly lethal disease agents, BU and public officials have promised state-of-the-art precautionary practices and maximum openness with the public. In the case of the three lab workers infected last year with tularemia germs in an existing, less secure BU lab in the South End, officials have failed on both counts.
In their defense, officials say the events at the lab never presented a threat to public health. They are probably right, since tularemia is not transmissible from person to person. Still, the incident has threatened public confidence, especially since officials concealed news of it from the public for months. The infections also point up the need for national standards and public inspection procedures for research laboratories.
The workers became sick because they were working with a more dangerous strain of the sometimes fatal tularemia bacteria than they thought and because they did not work under hooded devices with filters. Hoods, protective clothing, and other precautions would be rigorously enforced standard procedures at the proposed biosafety level 4 lab, according to Dr. Mark Klempner, who is overseeing the new lab's creation.
That still leaves the unsolved mystery of how the more dangerous strain got into the level 2 lab where the workers became infected. They were supposed to be working on a vaccine for tularemia (sometimes known as rabbit fever) with a strain altered so it would not cause the disease. After the third worker fell ill, DNA tests showed that the more dangerous strain was mixed in with the altered strain supplied by a Nebraska company.
Until now there has been no requirement that laboratories of any biosafety level check incoming deliveries of pathogens to confirm their identity. Klempner promised that the new BU lab will have standard procedures for verifying such samples. These checks should become standard nationwide.
A higher level of candor with the public should also become standard. Even if there was no public health risk, BU, the city's Public Health Commission, and the state Department of Public Health all should have announced what happened and what plans they had for preventing recurrences.
The state DPH inspects clinical laboratories, but there is no equivalent system for research laboratories. The problems at the BU lab and the unanswered questions about the tularemia specimen from Nebraska argue for a system of federal guidelines, with enforcement delegated to state or municipal health departments.