BU biolab shoots for transparency with revamped website, community concerns remain

in In The News
July 23rd, 2012

The Daily Free Press
July 23, 2012

By Chris Lisinski

Although the Boston University National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories’ revamped website provides research information to increase transparency, community members said they still have unaddressed concerns about the lab’s risks.

“We felt it was important to let people know what was going on inside the lab,” said Steve Burgay, senior vice president of external affairs. “From our perspective, it’s the best way to get people comfortable with the facility and give people a sense of confidence and trust that they know what’s going on inside the building.”

Burgay said the website, which launched in the first week of July, makes the facility and research transparent to the public.

“We’ve designed and launched a site that’s specific to the NEIDL,” he said, “and focuses specifically on introducing the public and our peers in the research community to the principal investigators that are there and the kind of work that they’ll be doing.”

The website is designed for the general public to understand, Burgay said, and describes the lab in simple terms.

The site also features multimedia components such as videos, he said. Some show the importance of Biosafety Level-3 research and introduce the lab’s researchers.

The National Institutes of Health, whose Blue Ribbon Panel released its final supplementary risk assessment for the lab in early July, does not require such a website for the facility by law, according to an email sent to The Daily Free Press.

Burgay said the information is not legally required, although its accessibility is something that the NIH has strongly encouraged for all institutions, particularly with labs of this nature.

“We agree with them,” he said. “Because of the special nature of these kinds of labs, it’s very important to give people access to information about the people working there and the kind of work that they’re doing.”

While the final risk assessment determined the risk of infection to be very low, the NIH has yet to decide whether such risk is acceptable.

Groups such as the Massachusetts Nursing Association and the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus have voiced concerns about the lab.

Opponents of the biolab said they were unconvinced by the website.

Klare Allen, a community organizer with Safety Net, a group opposed to the biolab, said she was skeptical about what information would be released to the public based on what she has been told in the past.

“Just through the years of working on this, I know that this is a federal facility,” she said. “I know that they have said quite a few times that some of the information is top secret, that they won’t be able to divulge several things, be it transportation [or] what they would do as far as risks if there was a release.”

No classified research will be performed at the lab, according to the NEIDL website.

“To the contrary, the public will have access to information about any and all research before it even begins through several channels,” according to the website.

Instead of focusing on rare and exotic diseases, BU should focus on more prevalent pathogens such as Staph infections, according to an alternative vision for the biolab opponents have proposed.

David Schildmeier, spokesman for the Massachusetts Nursing Association, said the website still does not diminish the risks of the lab and its location.

“A website isn’t going to protect anybody,” he said. “Having the most deadly agents somewhere other than the inner city of Boston will protect a lot of people, and that’s what we’re concerned with. It’s a public health issue. It’s not a communications issue. It’s not a transparency issue.”