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NEIDL a Step Closer to Wider Operation

NIH says research can be conducted safely

| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson

“The NEIDL will be an important addition to life science research in our region, and its work to improve public health will have a local, national, and global impact,” says John R. Murphy, interim director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) moved a step closer to clearance for full operation on January 2, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a Supplemental Record of Decision that the lab poses minimal risk to the surrounding community. The Record of Decision, published in Federal Register, reaffirms that the NEIDL, in its current location on Albany Street, poses minimal risk to the community surrounding the facility and that research at high and maximum containment levels can be conducted there safely.

The decision follows several years of controversy about the safety of operating the $200 million lab, which was completed in 2008, and comes on the heels of a comprehensive analysis by distinguished scientists and researchers of the potential safety risks posed by the NEIDL, as well as a thorough consideration of public comments on the analysis, done by an independent panel of scientists from the National Research Council.

The 2,717-page Final Supplementary Risk Assessment for the NEIDL, released by the NIH in July, examined a series of scenarios and potential consequences of procedural failures, including containment system failures, and malevolent acts. The Blue Ribbon Panel that provided scientific and technical advice to the NIH throughout the process comprised experts in infectious diseases, public health and epidemiology, risk assessment, environmental justice, risk communications, biodefense, biosafety, and infectious disease modeling. The panel’s chairman praised the analysis as “sound scientific work,” with possible safety-related scenarios that were credible.

“The NIH conducted an exhaustive review of the lab, and its findings were affirmed by an independent panel of eminent scientists,” says John R. Murphy, interim director of the NEIDL and a School of Medicine professor of medicine and microbiology. “The NEIDL will be an important addition to life science research in our region, and its work to improve public health will have a local, national, and global impact.”

In March, BU researchers moved into the NEIDL, at 620 Albany St., to work on tuberculosis research that has been approved for Biosafety Level 2 laboratories. Last week’s Record of Decision clears the way for the NEIDL to proceed to the next steps required to open the lab for more sensitive Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) and Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) research, including obtaining a certificate from the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. BU will soon file the necessary documentation, including a Supplementary Final Environmental Impact Report with that office, according to Ellen Berlin, a BU spokeswoman for NEIDL.

Federal and state court cases, filed by opponents to the lab in 2005 and 2006, also must be resolved. In the federal case, the parties will file briefs regarding the adequacy of the risk assessment. The state lawsuit is on hold pending the submittal of the Supplementary Final Environmental Impact Report.

BU must also receive approval for BSL-3 or BSL-4 research from the University’s Institutional Biosafety Committee and from the Boston Public Health Commission.

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