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Science & Tech

Court ruling says Biosafety lab construction may continue

Ties completion to findings of further review

The NEIDL is scheduled to be operational in the fall of 2008.

An effort to halt the funding and construction of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) being built by Boston University Medical Center was put on hold last Friday, when a federal judge ruled that construction can continue at least until an ongoing environmental review is completed. The decision, by U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris, stated that it was not in the public interest to enjoin funding and construction of the $178 million Biosafety Level-4 lab at this time. The judge also rejected the plaintiffs’ effort to prevent BSL-2 and BSL-3 research from being conducted at the lab.

The lawsuit, brought by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), had asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction that would prevent the National Institutes of Public Health (NIH) from continuing to fund the project. The CLF argued that the federal government did not adequately investigate the risks of the lab or alternative locations for it before giving its final approval.

The October 20th decision ties the progress of the lab to further review of worst-case scenarios by the NIH, similar to those required by a separate state court ruling issued in July. Those reviews are expected to be completed in four to six months.  

Todd Klipp, general counsel for Boston University, described yesterday’s decision as a victory for the University. “We are confident that further studies will confirm that all relevant risks and worst-case scenarios have been considered,” said Klipp. “We believe they will show that the lab can be operated in a way that will present no danger to the surrounding neighborhood.”

The NEIDL will house a biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab for research on dangerous microorganisms, including Ebola and botulism. Because it will be located in a densely populated urban neighborhood, it has been a source of controversy ever since September 2003, when the NIH’s National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) awarded Boston University Medical Center $128 million to build the facility.

In response to safety concerns, Boston University officials stress that the lab will meet or exceed the strictest government security standards to protect researchers and the surrounding community. In addition to security personnel, metal detectors, and alarms, researchers entering the BSL-4 lab will first have to undergo a decontamination shower and don full-body hazardous materials suits. The pathogens themselves will be kept in liquid nitrogen containers that can be unlocked only with biometric or iris scans and pass codes from two researchers. All air flowing into and out of the building will pass through ultrafine HEPA filters capable of removing from the air microscopic particles of .3 microns or smaller. 

The Boston Redevelopment Authority Board gave its approval to the lab in December 2004, and the Boston Zoning Commission gave its approval in January 2005. BU officials estimate that the facility will create more than 1,300 construction jobs and more than 600 permanent jobs and that it will bring in $1.6 billion in federal research and construction grants over the next two decades.

For frequently asked questions about the NEIDL, click here