Foes question public stake in BU lab

Doubt benefit of biohazard facility

By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / April 29, 2010

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Opponents of the Boston University biolab project say the school should develop vaccines on the site for illnesses plaguing the community, such as cancer and AIDS, instead of agents for diseases that they say pose no public health threat to the area.

Activists gathered before last night’s public meeting on the project, which was held at the Boston Marriott Copley Place, and spoke out against the facility, where scientists plan to hunt for vaccines for illnesses such as Ebola and to combat a plague.

They said such research would put residents of the South End and Roxbury at risk without offering any benefits.

“We don’t get anything out of it,’’ said Klare Allen of Roxbury Safety Net, a group opposing the lab.

She added that federal officials have also not made residents aware of the risks surrounding the $192 million National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratory, located on Albany Street.

“They just aren’t doing their jobs,’’ she said.

Representatives from the school and the National Institutes of Health, which is providing most of the funding for the lab, said they would have no immediate comment on the activists’ proposal to develop certain vaccines.

Activist Lynn Klotz, a biotechnology consultant and former Harvard professor, said that lab workers are planning to pursue a “one bug, one vaccine strategy’’ that will have a limited scope.

“For example, a drug designed to cure anthrax would only cure anthrax; a drug designed to cure plague would only cure plague,’’ he said, reading from a prepared statement.

“None of the [targeted] agents [are] a public health threat, so in the US, whatever they develop will have almost no public health value,’’ he added.

Instead, Klotz said, BU should use the site to develop “new, safe vaccine technologies and drugs for infectious diseases of substantial public health concern’’ such as AIDS and complications related to staph infections.

An NIH panel informed the public last night about the status of a draft risk assessment report for the lab, which could be published as early as December, officials said.

A team from the California-based research firm, Tetra Tech, has begun its work testing the site’s ability to protect against the spread of infectious diseases through procedural failures, equipment failures, and “malevolent actions’’ such as terrorist attacks.

Assessors will focus on a list of credible, worst-case scenarios, which is no easy task, said panelist Samuel L. Stanley, president of Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

“Someone can always imagine something worse,’’ he said during his opening remarks at the meeting, which was attended by more than 100 people.

Assessors will rate the site’s ability to respond to a waste disposal system glitch, mislabeled tubes, or a “disgruntled or deranged lab worker’’ who releases a harmful pathogen into the community, among other issues, according to a slide presentation at the meeting.

The NIH panel, which includes biomedical specialists from around the country, faced tough questions during the meeting.

Julianna Bruce, a Jamaica Plain resident, asked what it would take to deem the lab unsafe.

“Is the criteria that it is OK for somebody to die?’’ she asked, prompting a firm denial from Dr. Adel Mahmoud, a molecular biologist at Princeton University who chairs the panel.

“Of course not,’’ he said.

Tillyruth Teixeira, a board member with the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, pointed out that many elderly residents live near the site of the lab. MSAC is a grass-roots, senior-run organization intended to empower senior citizens.

“[We’re] talking about people who are extra vulnerable,’’ she said.

Other residents said that the lab would offer little or no public benefit, which Stanley took issue with.

“Infectious diseases remain a tremendous threat around the world,’’ he said. “They kill literally millions of people every day.’’

Questioners also expressed fear that lab researchers would develop biological weapons.

Mahmoud said the lab is prohibited by law from getting “engaged with bioweapons.’’

Ellen Berlin, a spokeswoman for the BU Medical Campus, said the school is already conducting safety drills at the still-vacant lab with “simulated’’ germs.

The lab has been enveloped in controversy since the school first received federal funding in 2003.

Opponents sued to block construction in state court in 2005 and federal court in 2006, on the grounds that the lab was a potential safety hazard in the densely populated area.

Judges allowed construction to continue but ordered more safety reviews. A public comment period will follow the completion of the current review.

The public can submit comments to the NIH by e-mail at

Travis Andersen can be reached at

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