Tensions high at BU BioLab meeting

in In The News
October 6th, 2010

By Emily Cataneo (From Sound End News), October 6, 2010

Citizens still displeased with risk assessment studies

When community members at the Boston University BioLab Meeting on Tuesday, October 5 stepped up to the microphone, they were not happy. Some were barely civil.

Commentator after commentator expressed confusion and suspicion about what the BioLab was planning to study in its facility; fear of what an accident in the BioLab could do to their community; and disgust for the risk assessment study presented at the meeting.

The meeting, held at Roxbury Community College, is just the latest of in a series of BU BioLab meetings where tensions and tempers have run high. The BU BioLab, officially known as the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), has generated controversy since it was first proposed in 2002. The building, located on Albany Street and partially funded by the National Institutes of Heatlth (NIH), will potentially be used to study 13 pathogens that are among the most dangerous known to humankind, including Ebola virus and Marburg virus. In 2003, incensed community members leveled a lawsuit against NIH, the Trustees of Boston University, and the Boston Medical Center Corporation.

In 2008, as part of its efforts to determine whether the BioLab will in fact pose a threat to the community, NIH convened a Blue Ribbon Panel, comprised of independent scientists and experts. Adel Mahmoud, the panel chair, spoke for fifteen minutes at the beginning of Tuesday night’s meeting, explaining what he and his colleagues were trying to do.

“Tonight’s meeting is a continuation of the Blue Ribbon Panels engagement with the citizens of Boston to make sure risk assessment is as transparent as possible,” said Mahmoud.

Mahmoud and his colleagues sat up on stage while Tetra Tech, the firm hired by NIH to complete the risk assessment, gave a half-hour PowerPoint presentation on their most recent findings. Presenter Adi Gundlapalli, an assistant professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, listed the 13 pathogens slated to be at the BioLab, and ran through a variety of potential disasters and mishaps that could occur to release those pathogens to the public. Gundlapalli focused in on several pathogens–SARS-CoV and Rift Valley fever virus-and several possible release scenarios-a centrifuge mishap and an earthquake-when discussing the probability of public infections. According to Gundlapalli, for the two pathogens and the two scenarios discussed, the probability of one or more members of the public becoming infected was either low (it could happen once every 10,000 to 1 million years) or beyond reasonably foreseeable (it could happen once in more than one million years).

But when Gundlapalli sat down at the end of his presentation, nobody applauded. During the subsequent two and a half hour public commentary portion of the meeting, every community member who spoke at the microphone received applause, if not standing ovations, whoops or cheers.

Klare Allen, a Roxbury resident and one of the leaders of the opposition to the BioLab, went over the three minutes allotted to each commentator as she described her dissatisfaction with the risk assessment process.

“I don’t see transportation being addressed in this scenario. If something were to happen on the way from the airport, what would happen to the community-that’s a worst case scenario,” said Allen, her voice rising.

Richard Orareo, who lives in the Fenway, said that the study had failed to consider the mental stability of the potential workers at the BioLab. He cited the Sept. 12 death of a Northeastern University lab technician, who allegedly brought cyanide out of the lab and to her home to commit suicide.

“Did you come on the Orange Line? On the Green Line? Well, that’s how she went back and forth to work. With her container of cyanide,” said Orareo.

“This will be part of the study and we will get back to you,” replied George Friedman, a panel member.

In her time at the microphone, Allen also said that the study should have looked at the neighborhood and its problems specifically, instead of studying abstract data.

“We need to look at our community. Who’s sick? What diseases do we already have? We need to do a full overlay,” she said.

Mel King, a South End community leader and member of the opposition, questioned whether the panel members had bothered to walk around the neighborhoods and get to know the people who live there-people who, King said, are already terrified of the potential BioLab.

“Your risk analysis is too late. People in my neighborhood live in fear of what you’re going to do,” said King. “I’m infected with the fear that you’ve put in me.”

In the lobby outside the auditorium, Allen expressed her belief that the panel and the Tetra Tech representatives were talking down to her and her fellow civilians.

Another fear aired by commentators was that the BU BioLab would be used to study biological weapons.

“I would think we were living in an exciting science fiction novel if it weren’t more like a nightmare,” said Alice Kant, reading from a prepared statement. “This research exists to make biological agents to kill people.”

Allen and scientist Mark Pelletier explained that the fears about biological weapons originated from a letter sent from Klempner, in which he stated that the BioLab would work towards researching potential defenses against biological agents.

At any rate, said Allen, she doesn’t understand why the BioLab should study these pathogens in the heart of Boston, where nobody suffers from them and studying them cannot bring any benefit to Roxbury or the South End.

“Our concern is that nobody we know in MA is suffering from these pathogens. Nobody from other states is suffering from these pathogens,” said Allen. “So why are you bringing them to our community?” said Allen.

In an email the day after the meeting, BUMC interim director of corporate communications Maria Pantages said they respected the process the Blue Ribbon Group and community members were participating in.

“It is important to allow people who have concerns about the Lab to have the ability to express those concerns,” she said.