The opening of a Boston University laboratory designed to study the world's deadliest germs will be delayed several months or longer, according to documents filed this week in federal court.
BU administrators overseeing the Biosafety Level-4 lab, the centerpiece of a larger federally sponsored project, had predicted that the facility would be operating by the fall. But the National Institutes of Health said in this week's court filing that it now anticipates that an ongoing environmental review of the lab will take longer than expected and won't be completed until "on or before April 30, 2009."
A BU spokeswoman, Ellen Berlin, said yesterday: "The NIH is doing additional studies, and that clearly adds time to the schedule. As the NIH process is ongoing, it is premature to set a precise opening date."
Still, the disclosure by the federal agency of its extended timetable for finishing the environmental analysis constitutes a clear setback for BU, which first began pursuing federal grants to build the lab on its South End medical campus five years ago.
The revised NIH schedule also appears to acknowledge blistering criticism of the agency's conclusion that the lab posed no danger to the surrounding neighborhood. In November, an independent panel of scientists concluded that the federal review "was not sound and credible" and failed to adequately address the consequences of highly lethal germs escaping from the lab.
At that time, the director of the NIH, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, pledged to personally review the critical report from the National Research Council.
An NIH spokesman declined to comment last night on the court filing, other than to confirm April 30, 2009, as the latest date on which its final environmental assessment will be completed.
But even that report will not provide the final say on the project, which is under construction on Albany Street and more than 70 percent complete. Legal cases brought by lab opponents have yet to be resolved.
In a federal lawsuit, US District Judge Patti B. Saris had refused to immediately block construction of the project. But Saris said she would retain oversight of the Biosafety Level-4 lab, leaving open the possibility that she could prevent research with the deadliest germs, including Ebola, plague, and Marburg virus.
The new court documents were filed to address Saris's questions about the status of the environmental review.
Once the review is completed, representatives of BU, NIH, and the lab opponents must appear before Saris again, adding further time to the lab's opening date.
"The way I read this is they can't open the BSL-4 piece of this conceivably before the end of 2009 or more likely the beginning of 2010, just the way the world works and because nobody can tell the judge when to decide," said Eloise Lawrence, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, which sued to stop the lab. "She could also decide at that point it will never open."