A decade-long push to open a controversial infectious-disease research lab in Boston’s South End neighborhood is one giant step closer to fruition, with federal regulators signing off on the project.
In a notice published Wednesday in the Federal Register, the National Institutes of Health said that after “careful consideration” it has concluded that Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, which will work with some of the world’s deadliest germs, “poses minimal risk to the community surrounding the facility.”
The decision clears the way for final state environmental review, which has been in limbo pending the federal decision.
Federal and state lawsuits challenging the project by neighborhood residents and environmentalists also must be resolved.
The NIH decision said analyses by an independent Blue Ribbon Panel, and by an advisory committee comprised of specialists in infectious disease, public health, risk assessment, and biosafety, determined that the risks of infections or fatalities to the public from an accident or planned attack at the facility are “generally very low to only remotely possible.”
The analyses included scenarios such as an earthquake or a lab worker being accidentally pricked by a needle and failing to recognize or report the incident.
“The [lab] will be an important addition to life science research in our region and its work to improve public health will have local, national and global impact,” lab interim director John R. Murphy said in a statement.
Opponents said federal regulators’ final report did little to assuage their concerns that officials have thoroughly considered health risks in such a densely populated neighborhood. The facility, built on the Boston University Medical Center campus, has remained largely vacant since it was completed roughly four years ago.
“We still believe there are gaps in the assessment,” said Mina S. Makarious, an attorney at Anderson & Kreiger, a Cambridge law firm representing South End neighbors who have sued to block the lab.
BU opened a small portion of the building, known as a BSL-2 lab, last March for work on less dangerous germs.
BU spokeswoman Ellen Berlin said the rest of the facility probably would not open before the end of this year or early 2014, assuming it obtains all remaining approvals.