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NIH Study Supports South End Location for Biosafety Lab

Reviewers say current site of NEIDL tops suburban and rural alternatives

The National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories under construction on Albany Street.

A new study of the potential health and safety risks of siting the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) in Boston’s South End has found that the current Albany Street location is as safe as, or safer than, suburban or rural alternatives.

The review, conducted voluntarily by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in response to concerns raised in federal court proceedings, found that the construction and operation of the Albany Street facility on the Boston University Medical Campus did not pose a risk to the neighborhood or to surrounding communities.

“This report confirms what history has shown,” says NEIDL director Mark Klempner, a School of Medicine professor and Medical Campus associate provost for research. “The research in these laboratories can be done safely, for the workers and for the community. High-containment laboratories are needed to do this research, which holds the promise of finding ways to prevent and treat the many emerging infectious diseases that are serious public health problems.”

The new biosafety lab is being built by Boston University Medical Center with a grant from NIH. Researchers will study dangerous infectious diseases and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines. Construction is slated for completion in 2008.

The NIH study used computer models to simulate several scenarios in which an infectious disease was accidentally released from a Level 4 lab and introduced to the community in urban, suburban, and rural environments. (NEIDL’s Level 4 lab would study the most serious infectious microorganisms, such as Ebola and botulism.) Investigators found that under normal conditions and using realistic scientific assumptions, the likelihood of infection or death was negligible and approached zero, so they also simulated unrealistic scenarios that far overstated the actual risks. Using even those exaggerated possibilities, NIH researchers determined that the lab’s Boston location was as safe as, and in some ways safer than, alternative locations in suburban Tyngsborough, Mass., and in rural Peterborough, N.H. The new study’s findings are consistent with those of previous analyses, which concluded that locating the lab in the city would neither elevate nor create a public health risk in the community.

In addition to safety concerns, NIH investigators looked at the laboratory’s impact on air quality, noise, wetlands, and emergency responders. In all aspects studied, the South End site was deemed a more appropriate location than either the suburban or the rural alternative.

Jack Murphy, chief of molecular medicine in the MED department of medicine, says NEIDL will provide a state-of-the-art facility for the research of many emerging infectious diseases that have not yet been studied.

“At the NEIDL, investigators will safely employ the latest advances in molecular genetics, genomics, and proteomics,” says Murphy. “Their analyses will allow us to gain a level of understanding into the basic mechanisms of how these organisms cause disease. This knowledge will in turn be of enormous value in the development of new ways to treat, diagnose, and protect us from them.”

The NIH will invite public comment at hearings to be held in September.

The review is available at: http://www.nems.nih.gov/aspects/nat_resources/programs/nepa2.cfm

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.