Biolab Gets Fed OK But Hurdles Remain

in In The News
January 14th, 2013

The Boston Courant

January 11, 2013

by Zach Huffman

State approval and the resolution of state and federal lawsuits are the next hurdles that the BU biolab has to contend with before it can begin working with lethal biosafety level 4 pathogens. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued their approval for the BU biolab to pursue research of the biosafety level 3 and 4 pathogens, such as the smallpox virus or the Ebola virus, on January 2. The decision has reignited a federal lawsuit from South End and Roxbury residents against the lab that had been on hold in anticipation of the risk assessment. Before any level 3 or 4 testing can begin, the biolab will also need to be approved by the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the Boston Public Health Commission. “The case is now back on the active docket,” said Mina Markarious, attorney for Anderson and Kreiger LPP, which is representing the residents.

This opens a 45-day window to file additional briefs opposed or in support of the biolab, though Markarious said he believes that the window could possibly be extended. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs claim that the NIH risk assessment study for the biolab is too dense to be accessible by the general public and inadequately addresses potential risks to the neighboring community. The lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will remain on hold until the state issues its own risk assessment decision. NIH approval was expected considering the federal government’s stake in the facility, according to Roxbury activist Klare Allen, who is among the resident plaintiffs.

“The federal government is the one funding the lab. Once you invest $141 million, what can you say?” asked Allen. “It wasn’t surprising to the plaintiffs. I think that the NIH exists for a reason, and that is to put a lot of money into research.  So that’s what they do.” Allen questioned whether the lab was prepared for an emergency scenario, in reference to the recent meningitis breakout. “When things hit the fan, we have to already be prepared,” she said. “Right now we should already have plans in place.”

Even if the state quickly gives its approval and the lawsuits are easily settled, the biolab would still be about a year away from the decade-long effort to conduct level 3 or level 4 research, according to Ellen Berlin, spokesperson for the biolab.

“This has been a very long battle, and we are coming down to the wire,” said Allen. “We’re literally fighting for the lives of folks in Massachusetts.”